Cattle can get stuck or go down when being processed

Watch for balking and think prevention when it comes to alleyways and chutes

Cattle can get stuck or go down when being processed

Large cows or bulls can get stuck or go down in a chute or an alleyway system, and that can cause losses or welfare issues.

I have trained myself to really watch when cattle balk at certain points of a handling system as there is often a very good reason for this, and one that deserves attention.

In some cases it may point to the need to upgrade handling facilities due to the fact that, over time, cattle have got heavier, and yet are still moderate in height. Carcass weights are steadily increasing and so even feedlot systems may need revamping.

Animals of all age groups and classes should easily be able to make it up to the squeeze area. All new chutes now have some sort of side release mechanism (and both sides are desirable) but older ones (especially the older hydraulic chutes) may not have a side release. If the sides are V-shaped, it’s possible that animals (especially bulls during semen testing) may go down and won’t be able to get up.

I’ve had to sling bulls and lift them up to avoid a downer animal. Even if the outcome is favourable it has taken lots of time and you are on pins and needles the rest of the day hoping another doesn’t get stuck. I have mineral oiled the sides of an alleyway to allow a big, low-slung, heavily pregnant cow to slide through an alley system after getting stuck. Other producers have lifted the system right over them to set them free.

We need to be extra careful with older bulls with large shoulders when semen testing and shorter-statured, heavily pregnant cows when it comes to processing. I like to have the narrowest part of the handling system right at the back of the alleyway directly off of the tub. If they get in the back, you want them to be able to come out the front of the chute. If purchasing a new system it needs to be able to be expanded to 32 inches as virtually every animal should get through it at that width.

We also need the alley systems and the squeeze chutes with breakaway gates on at least one side. Every downer stuck cow/bull in your system can become a huge animal welfare issue and very stressful for you the owner. In some cases, stuck ones have to be cut out of or have systems totally taken apart to free them.

If stuck for a long time nerve/muscle damage leading to a downer or a pregnant one aborting are all potential outcomes. I try and look at everything from footing to measuring the narrowest point to try and come up with a permanent fix to the problem. Some systems are simply in need of huge upgrading, taking into account the size of our cattle these days.

With cows that have an abnormal pregnancy and huge abdomens, one simply needs to recognize this and examine and treat them in an area where they can go down. This is the same if bringing up a very weak animal to assess its condition. For instance, if it goes down and struggles and gets its legs out behind it, will there be enough room to roll it over?

With cows woozy from a difficult calving, one has to move them very slowly and always be aware of the traction they have. Avoid the areas with ice or let them take their time and find their own way. At veterinary clinics, if we are aware of a weak, sick or partially paralyzed animal, we may examine it right in the trailer as none of us ever want to create or facilitate causing a downer animal under our care.

If an animal does get stuck in mud or snow, one needs to pull slowly. I will sling if possible or if not, use a good rope halter and ropes on the feet. If mechanical assistance is available then go very slow and if a fractious animal is in danger of hurting itself, heavy sedation may be necessary. Other treatments such as selenium (if there has been a lot of struggling) and NSAIDs may be in order, but involve your veterinarian especially in the followup treatment.

Again, carefully investigate to find out if the situation was preventable so it doesn’t happen again. Many a cow or calf has been lost getting stuck around a dugout or slough attempting to get water. Solar pumps into water troughs have eliminated many of those problems over the years.

Good footing combined with access doors and adequately wide (preferably straight-sided) handling systems will eliminate the proverbial animal-got-stuck scenario we have all been involved in over the years.

Here’s to stress-free and efficient handling of cattle at any time of year regardless of body condition state of pregnancy or body shape. This is definitely another category in which the modern cattleman has improved the animal welfare with his cattle, bison and other large animals on the farm.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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