The key to cattle handling is to understand animal behavior and create trust with your herd
The fastest way to work cattle is slow and steady. Low-stress cattle handling isn’t just a buzz word, either. Ranchers have found real value in the stockmanship and animal husbandry.
Scott and Kim Ford of Cross Diamond Cattle in Bertrand, Neb., know every time the cake truck enters the cornstalk pasture, the cattle will follow. "Low-stress handling is not just the day you bring them up to give them a shot. For us, it’s every day—building that relationship of trust with our livestock," Kim Ford says. "We feel it is really important to get out of the cake truck every day and just walk through the cattle. The cattle associate that feeding with a human. They learn that it is OK to stand there and have a person walk through them to take a look."
The Fords’ ranch encompasses a 400-cow registered Red Angus herd and a 400-cow commercial Red Angus herd, divided on two ranches. When it comes to establishing animal-handling procedures, Ford says open communication is important for the crew. "Sitting down and talking about our experiences is valuable. For example, how could we have made that situation the day before result in a better outcome? What could we have done to make that day easier on us and the cattle?"
The Fords are conscious of their animal handling primarily because they develop commercial females and purebred bulls for their annual production sales. "I think everyone has probably had an experience where an animal saw something new and it takes a while for that animal to become comfortable and to train them appropriately," she says.
The ranch uses a mixture of horses, stock dogs, vehicles, ATVs and humans on-foot to work and move cattle. "The younger an animal is exposed to different things, I think it makes it easier for them to take in the information," Ford says. "Calves are like humans—a lot of their learning comes from their mother. So, we think it’s best that calves are exposed to new things while they are young and still nursing. They start trusting people and build upon that trust as they grow up and mature."
Trust from a cow? Yes, says Ron Gill at Texas A&M University. "The top consideration to working cattle without stress is to think about how to communicate with that cow to develop her trust. A lot of cattlemen try to do that with a feedsack—bringing cattle to the corral, etc.—everything they do is with feed. That can be a good start, but those cattle still don’t know how to move through a working facility. Even if the cattle are gentle, they are still pretty stressed out in the working process," Gill says.
Cattle movements depend on the handler’s position in relation to the animal’s eyesight.
Start the year out right. Avoid the stress when working cattle—on you and the animals—by practicing simple handling procedures with your herd on a regular basis.
"Interact more with your cattle in the pasture," Gill advises. "Most producers don’t want to do that, because they are afraid the cattle will get away from them and they won’t be able to do anything with them ever again. The reason the cattle will get away from you is because they aren’t worked with enough."
"If the only time you go to the pasture is when you are going to work them, the cattle are going to react badly," he adds. "Every time you go to the pasture, do a little something with them. Teach them to turn away from you, to stop and to start moving again. If you don’t practice that, your cattle won’t get any better to work with. Practice working and understanding how your cattle are going to respond."
How to start. Here is a strategy to try in your own operation; it’s one that Gill shows during his animal-handling clinics.
Move the cattle from one area of the pasture to the other, much like you would in a grazing distribution exercise. "If you can do that, you can place them into a pen, too. The same principles apply wherever you are working the animals," Gill says.
As you do this, study the way that your body position affects what a cow does. Everything about cattle movement is based on what the animal can see; your position in relation to the animal’s eye will determine the animal’s actions.
Cattle have excellent peripheral vision, with the exception of blind spots directly behind them and
directly in front of them. (See illustration at left.) They will want to go around you, stay with and go to other cattle, and will want to return to where they have been.
Draw the cattle to you. "The best thing to do is to be out in front of them. Draw their attention and bring their heads up in the direction that you want them to go. Then, walk down their side, which will send them forward. This is opposite of what most people do—they get behind them, holler and the cattle move away from them. Instead, draw the cattle to you. If you go to the side of them, you can draw them past you and get a flow going pretty easily."
Move out of eyesight to turn their heads. "From the side, if a cow is looking at you out of one eye, it’s like a rearview mirror in a car—the cows can tell there is something there, but they can’t really judge the distance. When it’s far way, the animal doesn’t get very nervous about it; it just knows that it’s there. But if that object gets out of position to where it can’t see it in that little mirror, the animal starts turning its head, looking for it."
"If they turn their head, they are going to turn directions," Gill warns. "That may not always be a bad thing. You can learn to turn them any way you want to by going out of the line of sight, or ‘drawing’ on the eye. That’s why learning how they respond is so important."
Correctly apply pressure. When you are working on the side of an animal, you want to be able to apply pressure on the eye of the animal to make them turn away from you—into a lot, for example. This is where the trust factor is most critical.
"If they don’t trust you, they won’t let you do that," Gill says. When cattle turn away from you, they lose sight of you. Once they walk away from you, they will and turn and face you to put you back in focus.
"That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you get a bunch of cows in a corner and you can’t get them out. Teaching them that it’s alright to turn away from you is part of that training process," Gill says. "That is easier to do out in the pasture where the cattle have more room."
Handling considerations for calving. Throughout the calving season, evaluate yourself to see how you can incorporate more low-stress handling techniques.
"If you handle the cattle right, you can cut down the stress in those cows. The calves will mother up and bond faster," Gill says. "In a producer’s first interaction with a calf, which is often at ear tagging, we advise producers to not sneak up behind calves, tag them and let them run off. When you catch them, hold on to them long enough for them to relax—then tag them and let them go. It’s a very small thing, but it improves how those cattle respond to humans for the rest of their life."
If heifers are having trouble calving, Gill says to calmly assist the animal through the birth, but unite the pair quickly so they can bond. "There is a lot depending on that heifer to do that correctly," he says.
Moving the pair as a unit also reinforces that maternal bond, lowers death loss, reduces predator loss and improves the overall health of the calf. Extreme stress on the cow will affect her colostrum quality and milk let down. The key is that each time animals are handled, it is done in a calm fashion, understanding the animal’s basic instincts.
"Different areas of the country have a lot different approaches to calving season, so that will vary," Gill says. "The more interaction you can have early on with that cow and calf, the better it will be later—if that interaction was good."
Maximize the Herd
The Maximize the Herd Series equips cattle producers with the specific information they need to steer their herds to the next level of profitability.
1. Opportunity with Drought
2. Buy Bulls for the Long Term
3. Raise Heifers to be Better Cows
4. The Best Forages for Your Cattle
5. Handle the Herd With Care