Cattle Handling 101: Play it Safe

Make Sure Your Cattle-Handling Equipment is Safe

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By Heather Smith Thomas – Most accidents with cattle handling occur when people don’t understand cattle behavior and are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or may be trying to force a cow to do something she doesn’t understand. Cattle handling can be dangerous when cows are handled in a confined area if they panic and become defensive. Their reaction to a perceived threat to their own safety is to flee or fight; if they don’t have room to run away they may attack — viewing the person as a predator.

Wild, nervous cattle are more dangerous in close quarters like a small corral or barn stall because they panic quicker and need more room (a bigger flight zone). They may become defensive and charge, even if you are some distance away. Accidents at calving time may occur if a cow considers you a threat to her calf.

When raising cattle for the first time, keep in mind that some beef cattle breeds are more docile than others. Try to select a breed known for mellow disposition and ease of handling. Keep in mind, however, that there are individuals in every breed that are more high-strung or more easy-going than others, and select accordingly.

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Even when working with gentle cattle, pay attention. If you are in a corral, for instance, make sure you have room to dodge aside if a cow backs into you or turns around while you are trying to put her into the chute, for instance. Don’t be where you could get run over or smashed into the fence. Even a calm cow may kick if you come up behind her suddenly or poke her with a stick.

Know the animals and be prepared for what they might do. Putting two individuals into a corral together (that don’t get along or might be new to each other) may lead to a fight, and they may be so busy fighting that they don’t pay attention to you. If you get in the way, they may crash into you as one pushes the other, or one may suddenly whirl away from the other and run over you if you’re too close.

When you know the individuals, you can generally predict what they’ll do in a given situation, and handle them accordingly. If you’re working with unfamiliar cattle, however, it helps to be able to read their body language. This gives you a clue about what they are thinking and you can anticipate their next action.

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Cattle are front-heavy and use their head and neck for balance; watching the head and shoulders of an animal will tell you which way it is about to move. Cattle are also somewhat methodical in their actions and once an animal shifts its balance to move, it will move that direction.

You can also determine a cow’s thoughts by her head position and eyes–to know if she is calm, frightened, or angry. A cow with her head up and alert, giving you a steady stare, may mean she is aggressive, ready to stand her ground and fight. She may charge at you. A cow that shakes her head at you is upset and angry. This is a threat gesture. An animal that bows its head and neck is defensive and prepared to fight; this is the posture taken by a bull or cow when sizing up an adversary–prepared to charge, or to counter and deflect a head charge. Cattle that show this behavior may be dangerous.

If an unfamiliar animal makes aggressive gestures, back away slowly to give it more space, but do NOT run. A sudden movement may cause the animal to charge or chase you. If this is an animal you are familiar with, that should respect you, stand still and project your most firm, dominating thoughts, showing by your body language that you are not afraid and that you are the boss. When you work with a potentially aggressive animal, carry a stick, stock whip, or some kind of “weapon” to give you a psychological advantage and convey your dominance. Like the horns of a boss cow, the weapon is your outward show of strength and you won’t have to use it if the animal respects you. In every herd, there are dominant and subordinate animals, and the subordinates always defer to the dominant ones, so you must be dominant in this animal’s mind.

If an animal does charge, yell. Cattle have sensitive ears, and a scream may temporarily distract or make them pause. This may give you a chance to dodge away. If you are handling a more placid animal in close quarters (such as a pet that has no fear of you) and it tries to bunt or push on you with its head, grab an ear and twist it. This will usually cause the animal to back off or move its head away from you.

Cattle Handling Equipment

Some management tasks (such as vaccination, dehorning, administering medication, putting in ear tags, etc.) safe cattle handling requires that the animal is restrained. Even a pet cow will not stand still for something that causes pain, discomfort or annoyance. It is safer, and less stressful to the animal, to take the time to properly immobilize her before attempting any procedure. Though it might seem quicker to just walk up and squirt pink eye medication into her eye, for instance, she may run off, or sling her head away, or hurt you in her attempts to avoid the annoyance. It’s best to quietly restrain her BEFORE you try to give medication.

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A gentle cow that is halter trained can be tied up for some procedures, but usually, it’s best to use a chute, head-catcher or stanchion. Any cow that is NOT gentle should be restrained in a chute.

Whatever method you use, it should be accomplished in a manner that will upset her the least. The ideal situation is a catch pen or barn stall in which you can quietly herd the cow into the restraint (with a user-friendly cattle shed design) so she will put her head through the head catcher or stanchion (to eat feed you’ve put there) or go to the end of a properly designed runway/chute so she can’t run around the corral to avoid going in, and cannot turn around once she starts in. Make sure the chute or head catch is in good working order. When using a squeeze chute, don’t squeeze the animal too tightly–just enough to keep her from jumping around. When cattle handling by moving several cattle through a runway (as for vaccinations or delousing/deworming), don’t jam too many in at once or some may try to rear up over the ones in front of them.

When moving a cow through the runway, stay behind her shoulder, to encourage her to move forward. If a cow balks, prod her gently with a blunt stick or twist her tail. If she responds by moving forward, reward her by halting your persuasion tactic.

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Anytime you can handle cattle without them running (to try to get away) or becoming upset, you minimize stress. This keeps them in a better frame of mind for cooperating next time.  If they associate being “captured” with lots of yelling, running, whipping, dogs barking and biting, they will balk at going into the corral, chute or barn in the future.  Handling cattle calmly and quietly makes it safer, easier on you, and easier on them, and trains them to be cooperative instead of evasive.

Do you have any cattle handling tips or tricks to share below?

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