Low-Stress Handling Is A Team Effort

Published on Fri, 07/31/2020 - 11:31am

Low-Stress Handling Is A Team Effort.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 For awhile now, stress-free animal handling has been all the buzz in the industry. And it’s not without good reason, as science and research has evolved, we’ve come to have a deep understanding of the short and long-term consequences on beef quality and productivity when animals are routinely handle in appropriately. There is something to learn about this on all levels, from the ranch to the feedlot to the kill floor. And as common sense as this concept might be, far too often the industry loses millions of dollars to carcass flaws and damageds caused by poor handling. So how can we train all individuals in our supply system to better protect our end products and uphold a higher standard of animal welfare?

Think Like Cattle
Ben Barlett and Dr. Janice Swanson of Michigan State University broke down the cause of animal action into three basic components in the fact sheet, “Low-stress Cattle Handling: The Basics.” These are anatomy, instinct and experience. By anatomy, we must realiuze that cattle perceive and view things far differently than we as human beings do, a large part of this are their eye position and range of vision. Likewise, what falls out of their eyesight can also be heard, and often loud confusing sounds can be more frustrating to them than a blur of people coming in and out of their range of vision.

Instinct rides on the tailcoats of anatomy, a bovine’s instinct interprets its sights, sounds and smells. For example, an out of place coat or piece of plastic flapping in the wind has all the hallmarks of imminent danger, a puddle on the ground might be seen as a bottomless abyss or an oddly placed light reflection might be a cougar’s glare. This is also what causes behaviors such as seeking safety in numbers, preference to move uphill and avoidance of dark places.

Experience tells you why cattle act certain ways in specific situations. The sound of an engine starting up quickly gets correlated with feed delivery. Or a routine trip through a familiar chute to get vaccinations and doctoring might be treated far more calmly than loading onto a big, unfamiliar semi with people shouting and pushing.

These three things together explain why cattle will react to certain situations. As people, we can either work with or against these things, to use them to our advantage making the difference between a calm, easy move or a wild and potentially dangerous one. However, doing things the right way take time and patience above all else.

For example, some recent research looked at animals suffering from fatigued cattle syndrome in which excessive lactic acid builds up in the muscles of fats. This happens when cattle are loaded onto trailers and the kill floor too quickly and aggressively from the feedlots. It can easily be avoided if the handlers move the animals at a relaxed walk down the alleys instead of forcing them at a trot.

Check Your Facilities
Facilities are a big deal for both your sanity and the well-being of your animals. They don’t need to necessarily be fancy, but they need to be sufficient and well-maintained in a way that they are a help rather than a hindrance to your work. Closed alleyways are preferred to open panels when they are an option – they allow for much fewer variables such as shadows and outside distractions.
Another important thing is that you make it a regular practice to get inside and walk the facilities yourself. If you notice animals routinely balking at a certain area, see what has changed and what might be contributing to it. The details matter. Things such as a muddy spot, a jutting piece of wood, a sharp corner or a misplaced jacket will make all the difference in your animals moving smoothly or fighting you along the way.

The goal of your favilities should allow for steady, natural movement that involved as little human pressure as possible. At the same time, it is safe for the animals with secure, comfortable footing and ample room to avoid falls, bruising, cuts, etc.

Training the team

Cattle handling is a skill, not just a science. And it can be both learned and honed by just about anyone. A good place to begin is to ensure everyone on your team has a sound understanding of cattle flight zones and how they can be played with to push or stop cattle at a distance. There are plenty of diagrams out there you can find to illustrate this concept, and it can be practiced in a simple round pen with a couple young steers. Teach your workers that all cattle are individuals, which means there’s a lot of variance in temperments, flight zones, and excitability levels. As people, we need to be aware of these and be able to react accordingly. Animals who are very excited and pushed too hard can upset the flow of things, whereas a very comfortable animal might need some more force without being excessive.

Likewise, you the sooner you get young animals exposed to the sights and sounds of movement the better off you will be. Even in calfhood, it is good to get youngstock acclimated to people on the ground and horseback so they are familiar with being pushed and stopped, enter alleys and waiting in pens.

Stockmanship clinics are also offered at a venues all over the place, and it can be a worthwhile investment to have your managers or supervisors professionally trained, especially if you are noticing issues that come from poor handling. One of the good things about animal handling is it is one of the few factors in the beef game that is completely under your control. Circumstances and situations might not always be totally ideal, buyt you can certainly improve the outcome by using the right methods and having the right attitudes. And of course, by reducing stress on the animals, you’ll also do the same yourself and your employees.