The Secrets of Moo-ving Cattle

Oct 10, 2016 / Behavior / Farm Animals

[moving cattle]

Low-stress handling maximizes safety and comfort

Ever wonder how farmers manage that huge herd of cattle? With nothing more than a couple of people and maybe a farm dog, they are able to move hundreds of cattle from an open pasture into a barn or corral. As it turns out, farmers rely on techniques that use the animals’ natural behaviors.

Historically, moving cattle was a tough job. Sometimes electric prods were used to motivate these animals that weigh nearly a ton. Today, cattle are treated more humanely.

“Low-stress handling allows us to maximize safety, efficiency, and productivity while keeping the animals relatively comfortable,” explains Dr. Dawn Morin, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

Because cattle in the wild are a prey species targeted by meat-eating animals, the cattle innately stay in herds to have a better chance of surviving an attack.

“Isolation can be stressful for cattle, so it is best to handle them in groups,” says Dr. Morin.

Cattle rely on their vision and hearing to remain alert to predators. Noises that are high in frequency can make them nervous. They have poor depth perception as well, so anything that creates a contrast, such as a shadow or unexpected object, can scare them.

“Simple changes in the construction of chutes and barns can make these structures more approachable for cattle,” says Dr. Morin. Walking through where the cattle are herded and addressing any areas that may be scary for them can reduce their resistance to the pathway.

“A pathway that promotes cattle movement generally has solid sides, no visual distractions, minimal noise, good footing, a well-lit destination, and curved alleys so that cattle can see the animals in front of them,” explains Dr. Morin.

Cattle have a natural “flight zone.” This means when something comes within a certain distance of them, they panic and start to move away. “By exerting and releasing pressure at the very edge of their flight zone, a herd of cattle can be easily moved,” notes Dr. Morin. This process should not scare the animals, and the handler should move slowly and calmly. Moving too close to the animals or staying in their flight zone too long should be avoided to prevent stress.

Once the animals are in the alley heading to a chute, the flight zone can be used to keep them moving forward. “Cattle have a point of balance at their shoulder. When you enter their flight zone while facing them and pass their shoulder, they will move forward,” says Dr. Morin. This prevents them from stopping in the alley or backing up.

There are other motivators for cattle as well that can be used in conjunction with these techniques. Positive reinforcement, such as feeding, grooming, and scratching, can encourage them, similarly to how we use treats to reward our pets at home.

“Cattle are creatures of habit. Being consistent with their handling makes it easier for the animal and the handler,” says Dr. Morin.

With these handy behavioral tools, moving cattle has become much easier and more humane. It is beneficial to the farmer and the cattle to use low-stress handling in order to keep the cattle content as well as productive.

“The animal acts on its natural instincts, and its behavior is always right. If the animals are having trouble, the problem is with the facility or the handlers,” says Dr. Morin.

By Melissa Giese

Photo from Pixabay