Supporting Low-stress Cattle Handling


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Every interaction with cattle – each glance, each tiny movement – forms the foundation of low-stress stockmanship. A stockman is a caregiver, reminds Tom Noffsinger, DVM, a consulting feedyard veterinarian in Benkelman, Neb.

“A caregiver is someone who is dedicated to performing a task with a good attitude and the confidence to know they are helping make cattle healthy, productive and safe. Every intervention gives us the opportunity to make cattle better,” he says.

Evidence-based behavior
Low-stress cattle handling has been proven to increase productivity, Noffsinger notes. In fact, good handling can allow a producer’s investment in vaccines and treatments to work more effectively.

“Sometimes product failures are a result of – not the product – but whether the animals respond to a product,” he says. “I think about how many cattle we can save by making sure the products work their best.”

At the cow/calf stage, there is research to show first-service artificial insemination (AI) is affected by cattle handling, which makes calm handling during AI critical.

Passive immunity is impacted by nursing frequency and the maternal bond between cow and calf. As a result, a common low-stress handling technique includes moving cattle as family units.

“Moving together improves weight gain,” Noffsinger says. “We’re seeing that training calves to be away from their mothers sets the stage for weight gain on weaning day.”

It’s not just cow/calf pairs that can benefit from low-stress handling, he adds. Cattle can benefit all the way to the feedyard and at slaughter.

“Feedlot acclimation improves arrival feed intake, which improves innate disease resistance in cattle,” Noffsinger says. “Processing quietly and correctly improves uniformity of intake both in water and feed, which decreases number of noneaters.”

Any time cattle experience a move is an opportunity to improve techniques.

“Managing a change of address goes a long ways to reducing loss of performance and loss of health as we go from one phase of the production chain to another,” he says.
Background on behavior
Producers and DSRs should first understand why cattle behave like, well, cattle. Their eyes provide a 300-degree view of their environment, compared to a human’s 140-degree view. Cattle cannot see behind them and worry when people are in their blind spot, notes Michigan State University Extension.1

Cattle also have limited vertical vision and must put their heads down to see the ground in front of them. Their vision limitations mean a shadow across an alley will stop them, or a quick motion can send them running.

Cattle have good hearing, which means any loud noise is disturbing. As prey animals, cattle find safety in numbers. An isolated or single animal becomes distressed just because it is by itself.

Basic techniques
Key points for low-stress handling include being able to read the behavior of cattle; be available to their line of vision; and move cattle using a point of focus, rather than a point of balance.

“You need to be able to introduce yourself to a herd or group of cattle and read them and read their posture,” Noffsinger says.

Handlers should move animals with minimal, or no, handling aids. Producers should move calmly and use slow, deliberate movements. Facility design should allow for easy cattle movements. Evaluate areas where cattle commonly balk for potential improvements. Frequent positive handling will result in animals less stressed by handling and restraint than animals that have had limited human interaction, advises Washington State University Extension.2

Our main goal is to show prey animals that we are not there to be predators, but we’re there to take care of them, Noffsinger adds.

Show up correct
Noffsinger advises distributor sales representatives – or any visitor – to arrive with these techniques in mind.

“The success of the distributor segment is creating strong relationships and bringing awareness of the potential of low-stress cattle handling. It shows a sales rep is truly invested in the success of the operation and providing more than expected.”

Often, DSRs arrive during processing or pen movements. Noffsinger recommends visitors always exhibit respect for the cattle and crew with acute awareness of their responses.

“Be sure to respond to the smallest change in both the people or cattle,” he says. “I encourage these reps to be proactive and create some level of skill on their own. If a rep goes to check implants and stands at the chute in a way that stops cattle flow, the processing crew is going to have a negative impression. Learning good techniques shows respect for both the people and animals.”

1 Bartlett B and Swanson J. Low-Stress Cattle Handling: The Basics. Michigan State University Extension.

2 Smith SM. Understanding Low-Stress Cattle Handling Techniques. Washington State University Extension. 2015. FS176E.

3 Beef Quality Assurance. Cattle Care and Handling Guidelines. 2015.

Quiz: Is processing stressful?

  • Do 90 percent or more of cattle flow through handling systems easily?
  • Do more than 5 percent of cattle vocalize in the chute (prior to procedures being performed)?
  • Do more than 25 percent of cattle jump or run out of the chute?

Answering “yes” to any of the above questions indicates cattle may be stressed. Producers should evaluate their handling processes, facility design and/or asses prior handling issues.3

Learn more:

Modules on cattle handling are available through:

  • Merck Animal Health’s CreatingConnections™ Training Series and
  • Kansas State University’s Beef Cattle Institute Animal Care Training (ACT) program