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