March 04, 2024

They eyes have it: Improving animal husbandry can impact treatment of cattle

DUBUQUE, Iowa — Although cattle have a pressure zone and a flight zone, the point of movement for the animal is the eye.

“When I’m working with cattle, I focus on looking where their eye is,” said Dan Thomson, professor of animal science at Iowa State University.

“If you walk behind cattle, you’ll see them switching ears and what they are doing is they’re looking at you and they’re changing eyes to see if you’re still applying pressure to move them forward,” he said. “We need to move cattle from the front so they can see us.”

Cattle have a 360-degree view, said Thomson during a presentation at the Driftless Region Beef Conference presented by University of Illinois Extension, ISU Extension and Outreach and University of Wisconsin Extension.

“The pressure zone is when they notice you and as you move towards them and apply pressure the cattle will move away from the pressure,” he said. “That’s when we release the pressure and reward them for going in the right direction.”

The flight zone for cattle is even tighter.

“When we get too close or they’re panicked, they respond out of fear,” said Thomson, who has a consulting business that is involved with about 30% of the fed cattle in the United States.

Cattle want direction from people.

“They crave our attention and they are a trainable animal,” Thomson said. “We have to get back to husbandry and helping these animals understand we are caregivers.”

When cattle trust people, they will show clinical signs of problems such as foot rot or respiratory disease quicker.

“The biggest secret a bovine has is its health because the one that is lame or sick is the one that is preyed upon by predators,” the veterinarian said. “If they don’t view us as a friend, they’re not going to show us clinical signs, so we have to spend time acclimating our animals.”

If cattle arrive at a feedyard, Thomson said, and they are really skittish, he starts out by just having someone stand in the middle of the pen.

“We know the sooner the cattle get acclimated, the less toe abscesses we’ll have, the earlier we’ll have BRD diagnosis and the better they will come to the feedbunk when someone is going by,” he said. “All these little things add up to huge amounts of money.”

Thomson works with improving cattle handling facilities and he likes loadouts to be flat rather than on an incline.

“Cattle can see where they’re going if it’s flat or downhill,” he said. “When cattle are not going into something, it’s usually a line of sight that they don’t know what they’re getting into.”

Using a hot shot to move cattle is a habit, Thomson said.

“No more than 10% of the cattle should be hit with one, and if you’re using one that often, let’s adjust your facilities,” he said.

If cattle are falling exiting a chute it is usually a problem with footing in front of the chute or the animals are required to make a quick right or left-hand turn.

“When cattle go into a facility, the reason they balk isn’t because they’re afraid of shade because we see cattle stand in shade every day,” Thomson said. “They stop because they can’t see inside.”

It is important to transition the lighting.

“Work your cattle early in the morning because the lights will be on in the facility and it’s dark outside,” Thomson said.

For cattle to have traction, floors should have 1.5-inch wide and 1.5-inch deep grooves, the veterinarian said.

“It is vitally important for cattle that are going to stand there that the diamond that is left has to be big enough for the whole foot to rest on,” he said. “It’s a problem when we have too small of squares because we want them to be able to stand flat on the non-grooved area.”

Cattlemen have several options for crowding facilities, including the Temple Tub.

“The entrance to the tub needs to be the same width as the alley coming into it,” Thomson said. “And the tub should never be more than half full.”

Another option is the Bud Box that is 20 feet long and 10 feet wide.

“It needs to be twice as long as it is wide, and with six panels, you can build a Bud Box in a pasture to move cattle into a chute,” Thomson said. “When using a Bud Box, only bring enough cattle that can fit in your snake.”

A new idea that is going into feedyards and packing plants is the Bud Tub, which is a hybrid of the Bud Box and the tub system.

“The cattle come in from an alley, go round and come back into the snake,” Thomson said. “We put this in at a packing plant and they went from six people pushing cattle around the circle tub to two people.”

The veterinarian likes solid sides on the outside wall of the snake.

“If you put open sides on the outside of a curved snake, the cattle will constantly stick their legs though them because it is a natural movement,” he said.

But on the inside wall, Thomson prefers open-sided pipe fence.

“Then I can communicate with the cattle,” he said. “With a solid inside wall the only way to communicate with the cattle is to get on top of them.”

Cattlemen should adjust the hydraulic pressure on their squeeze chute to be between 650 to 850 psi.

“If you’re building a new facility, put your water hoses and electrical cords in the ceiling instead of having them lying on the floor,” Thomson said.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor