Ron Gill, Texas A&M University Extension livestock specialist and professor, discusses proper cattle handling techniques during an Illinois Cattle Feeders Meeting. Understanding how cattle think and behave can help producers improve their ability to move cattle in a low-stress way.
Ron Gill, Texas A&M University Extension livestock specialist and professor, discusses proper cattle handling techniques during an Illinois Cattle Feeders Meeting. Understanding how cattle think and behave can help producers improve their ability to move cattle in a low-stress way.

OREGON, Ill. — Low-stress livestock handling is not low pressure — it’s high pressure at the right time.

“If your timing is right, it takes very little to get a cow to do something,” said Ron Gill, Texas A&M University Extension livestock specialist and professor.

“One of the biggest factors we can have a positive impact on health is through the way we handle livestock,” said Gill during the Illinois Cattle Feeders Meeting, sponsored by Summit Livestock Facilities, University of Illinois Extension, ADM and the Illinois Beef Association. “A lot of people don’t equate those two together.”

However, he explained, a lot of the stress and sickness rates we see in livestock are human induced. These stresses can occur during transportation, weaning or handling.

“It is so important to get the processing facility as close to right as possible the first time, although there’s always going to be something you’d do a little different,” the specialist said. “In most cases I recommend moveable equipment, so where it’s not right, you can unpin it and change it. Once you get it right, you can set posts.”

Improving cattle handling procedures can impact the performance of the cattle.

“I use to run a backgrounding facility, and we made a big change in our bottom line by the way we handled the livestock,” Gill reported.

A Nebraska feedyard purchased a calf crop from the same herd in 2011 and 2012. “The only thing they did different is they taught the cattle how to work before they were weaned and shipped, so when they got to the feedyard, they didn’t have to de-stress them,” the professor explained.

“There was not much difference in carcass grades. The main difference was on the health side,” he said. “The 2012 cattle shrunk 3 percent less when shipped, so the guys who sold the calves got a 3-percent boost in weight just by the way the calves were handled, which was like a $5,000 bonus.”

It is important for cattlemen to understand how cattle think and behave. “They know what you know and they know what you don’t know,” the specialist stressed. “If you can’t out think a cow, they know it and they’ll take advantage of it every time.”

The foundation, according to Gill, “is to get cattle to do what we want them to do and think it is their idea.”

Cows are a lot smarter than most people think.

“The preferred method for cows to communicate with anything is by line of sight,” the professor said. “They want to be able to see what’s around them.”

Sound is the next way to communicate with cattle followed by touch.

“When you get cattle in a processing area, you can run your hand down their back and it will stimulate them to go forward or you can push them off balance at the hip and start their feet moving again,” Gill said. “There are little things we can do to get movement back in cattle without a hot shot.”

Since cattle want to see people, cattlemen can use that to their advantage and work more from the front of the animals.

“We need to draw them to us instead of pushing them everywhere they go,” Gill stressed.

“Don’t put pressure on cattle unless they have a place to go,” he added. “When you are behind a set of cattle, you’re putting pressure on the cattle that can’t get away from you.”

Cattle also have a tendency to circle people.

“If they walk straight away, they lose you in their line of sight, so they turn to look at you,” Gill said. “If you reposition yourself so they can see you, you’ll keep them going straight.”

Another basic principle of cattle behavior is they like to be with other cattle.

“If you start one, the rest will go,” the professor said. “And cattle can only think one main thought at a time.”

When going into a pen of cattle, it is important for the handler to take their time and allow all the cattle to get up.

“The natural tendency of a relaxed animal is to get up and stretch,” Gill noted. “But most of the time, we’re in a hurry, so the cattle will dread you coming into that pen next time.”

Every person and animal has a flight zone.

“We want to take the flight zone down to where it is manageable,” the professor said. “When you enter the flight zone, cattle will move.”

Cattle need to be comfortable going past their handler and not turning back to look at that person.

“That comes from trust,” Gill added. “Once you teach cattle how to work and you approach it the same way every time, they’re trained.”

A cow goes where her nose goes.

“So get her head facing the way you want her to go,” the specialist advised. “If working from the front to draw them doesn’t work initially, then get them moving, because the biggest problem we have is loss of movement.”

Gill recommends every cattleman with a confinement operation should build an exercise pen.

“The cattle will eat more, and they’ll gain faster because exercise is critical,” he stressed. “For fresh cattle, exercise them every other day and then once every week or once every two weeks. When you get ready to ship them, they’re ready to go and it’s no big deal.”

For processing facilities, Gill said there are places where solid sides are needed, but not everywhere.

“Never have cattle go to a solid back wall. Cattle do not like going to a dead end,” he said. “Have them going to daylight.”

The processing facility should be built to position people in the right place.

“The biggest impediment to cattle flow in a processing area is the position of the people,” Gill reported. “Design your facility to take advantage of the natural tendency of cattle.”

The cattle should be trained to go through the processing facility.

“If the only time you take them over there is when you’re going to put a lot pressure on them, they’ll get to where they don’t want to do it,” the professor said.