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Tips to reduce stress and up safety when handling cattle

It starts with keeping cattle calm and identifying hazards in your current handling facilities, say experts

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Keep calm when handling cattle — especially if you want safe working conditions.

Attitude, confidence, as well as the general mood sets the tone when handling cattle, says veterinarian Dr. Cody Creelman.

“I can barely count the number of times I’ve seen situations where things are nice and calm, steady, quiet, and proper,” said Creelman.

But you also have to have the right setup for handling facilities, added the Airdrie vet.

He said he witnesses two or three injuries a year, such as broken noses and jaws after animals slammed into gates as well as broken hands and fingers caught in latches.

Here is some advice on cattle-processing and -handling systems from Creelman and Dr. Elizabeth Homerosky, a veterinarian and the Simpson Ranch Fellow in Beef Cattle Health at the University of Calgary.

Keeping things nice and relaxed is key for safe handling, says Dr. Cody Creelman.

Keeping things nice and relaxed is key for safe handling, says Dr. Cody Creelman.
photo: Courtesy Cody Creelman

Watch your cattle

Training people in low-stress handling techniques is a necessary first step, said Homerosky.

“Another good rule to follow concerning safe low-stress handling is to always take time to understand what the cattle are telling you.”

If cattle are continually balking or stalling at a particular spot, they are probably scared of that area, so take some time to investigate the underlying issue of why they may not want to go through that area.

Her third major tip is to prepare for the unexpected.

“The majority of situations where I have witnessed people getting injured is when they are trying to free an animal from a dangerous situation,” said Homerosky. “Always have an exit planned. This applies to both the cattle and the handlers.”

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Before handlers get into a stall or corral with an animal, an exit route should always be identified. Side doors on chutes or removable panels on alleyways are helpful if an animal goes down or becomes stuck.

“These could potentially save the animal’s life,” said Homerosky.

And always remember that cattle are prey animals and what’s normal for a handler can be anything but for cattle.

For example, “being worked from above by someone on the catwalk is a very stressful situation and may prompt behaviour that is potentially dangerous to themselves or the handler.”

Is it really safe?

Creelman points to another commonly used practice — using a post to keep an animal from backing up in an alley.

The post — a metal or wooden pole inserted horizontally in chutes with open slat sides — is “basically a baseball bat on the end of a cow,” he said.

He calls the practice “very, very dangerous.”

“Guys and gals take a lot of risk when there is a 2,000-pound bull backing up at high speed and throwing in a post and getting it wedged into a 4×4-inch hole on the other side is a little disconcerting. Even when the animal isn’t moving, there is the risk of catching a hock, bringing the post up, (or) kicking.”

Because this bull was too large to round a bend in the alley and be put in a squeeze chute, Dr. Cody Creelman says he had little choice but to use posts (one in front and two behind) to do semen testing. But he describes a post as “basically a baseball bat on the end of a cow.”  

Because this bull was too large to round a bend in the alley and be put in a squeeze chute, Dr. Cody Creelman says he had little choice but to use posts (one in front and two behind) to do semen testing. But he describes a post as “basically a baseball bat on the end of a cow.”
photo: Courtesy Cody Creelman

The situation is getting better with more robust chutes and alleyways, as well as increased use of hydraulic squeezes, and Creelman prefers systems with sliding gates in the alleys and extra hydraulic gates.

Gates, latches and moving parts on the handling system are another danger area.

“I’ve seen a large number of injuries,” he said. “Any time the animals are on the other side of you, the potential for that gate or latch to pop open, is a dangerous spot, as well.”

But again, it’s the combination of good equipment and good handling practices that works best.

Low-stress handling techniques encourage things like a steady momentum down the alley, so cattle are less likely to stop and try to back up. If animals are calm, they won’t be crashing into or trying to climb up over gates. (Common-sense design — like not having a gate latch located where an animal could catch a horn or hoof — and proper equipment maintenance also play key roles here.)

Although there is no perfect system or design, when it comes to safety, Creelman said, hydraulic handling systems “changed my life.” Although cost prohibitive for most operations, having animals properly restrained in a hydraulic chute is a safety bonus as each catch is tailored for that individual animal.

Ask for input

By honing your animal-handling skills, and becoming a better cattle handler, safety is improved upon.

“Being able to read the animals and read the system, and moving the animals appropriately — you can do a lot with the bare necessities as long as you are using them correctly,” said Creelman.

“Safe and efficient handling systems don’t have to be expensive,” added Homerosky. “Some of the most effective systems I’ve worked cattle through were homemade corrals and alleys welded out of repurposed oilfield pipe leading to either a simple head gate or manual chute.

“Ask your veterinarian for their input before you build or buy. We travel the countryside daily and have seen hundreds of different handling facilities and would be more than happy to help design a system that works best for your operation’s needs.”

About the author

Contributor

Jill Burkhardt

Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.

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