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COLOR OF CATTLE HANDLING FACILITIES MAKES A DIFFERENCE

by: Heather Smith Thomas

What do elephant handling facilities and state of the art chutes and holding pens for cattle have in common? They are painted the same color a golden, earthy tan.

At a recent Bonina Ranch cutting event, cattle were brought into the arena and stood quietly, not at all upset by their surroundings. Nina Lundgren and her husband Bob, who built this cutting facility, painted the walls and pens a special tan color and feel it makes a big difference in the mood of the cattle. Nina says, "We'll be there practicing, working a set of horses, then go get another set of horses and come right back, and all the cattle are relaxed and lying down. They feel at home in that arena!"

Bob and Nina Lundgren (Bonina Ranch, in eastern Washington) have been raising cattle and horses all their lives. Bob has been a veterinarian and a cattle feeder for many years, buying several thousand head of feeder calves each year. After the cattle adjust to their new home, they are often used for cutting practice before moving on to a finishing lot.

Last year the Lundgrens built a 110 by 216 foot indoor arena, with pens in the back to accomodate cattle for cutting events. The holding facilities are designed to move cattle with minimum stress. Gathering and handling cattle quietly and properly is a big factor in providing good cattle for the competitions.

"We have really good footing in our arena, and Bob always gets good cattle. Those are the two keys to a successful event. We try to put on a nice show, and try to handle the cattle properly ahead of time. If we get them in a couple weeks early and they are wild, we walk through the pens and get them calmed down," says Nina.

"The walls of our barn are painted a golden tan. That's supposed to be one of the most calming colors for cattle. They really settle down. We got onto this fact after we had to repaint our old hydrolic cattle chute. We'd purchased it years ago from C&S Livestock Handling Company and when it needed more paint, we called the company and asked them to send some paint, because we wanted to keep it up and looking nice. We wondered if we could use any kind of paint but they said no, it has to be the right hardness for durability, and it has to be this special color; the golden tan is the best color. There had been tests that showed it calms cattle down," explains Nina.

"We asked if we could buy tan paint at the hardware store, but they said we needed this special formula! They told us they had stumbled onto this color by accident using it as a primer for other colors and later found it was the best color. Some tests were later done at Texas A & M University, and this color had been found to be the most calming, to cattle."

Dr. Harold Franke, former professor at Texas A & M (retired now for 15 years), says about 20 to 25 years ago they did a study on feedlot cattle to evaluate factors that might help them gain weight faster. "We looked at various colors (of pens, bunks, etc.) to see how they affected feed consumption. The tan color was the best; cattle were more relaxed and content and ate more. Results were published in one of the Beef Cattle Short Course Proceedings."

Nina says, "Over the years, this color has really become an important issue to us, with our livestock handling. At first, we ordered our paint from C&S, in Garden City, Kansas, and you can imagine the expense of shipping paint that far, in five gallon cans! Then the folks at C&S told us we could get any Sherwin Williams paint dealer to mix it for us. Sherwin Williams calls this color "C&S Beige." It might be one of their standard colors now. So I had our paint dealer call their paint guy to get the formula. That made it easier for us to get the paint."

"Then we got ready to paint this new barn and arena, and the manager at our local paint dealership had moved on and there was a new guy, so I gave him the formula. But when I brought it home and opened it up, it was pink! I took it back and said this was the wrong paint. He told me it was the formula I'd given him, exactly. I told him it can't be. So I called C&S again and got the formula again, and he said that's exactly what he'd done the first time. I argued with him, but he was sure he was doing it correctly."

"He finally said there is not enough room in the can to put that much brown or yellow in there. I finally called back to Kansas and asked them, and they said you have to tip the can! It's not the standard way you mix things. You have to put more in there than usual, and you have to tip the can. So they talked to our local paint man and he agreed to mix it the way we needed it, and we finally got the right color!"

"Since it was so good for our cattle working facility, and worked so well, we thought it might also work for our cow cutting facilities. When we were having a hard time getting the right color, Bob jokingly said, 'Go ahead and paint it with the pink!' But we finally got the right color and painted the pens and arena, and it really has worked well for the cattle. They don't go bouncing off the walls at all. Part of our success with the cattle is hopefully due to the way we handle them out back, before they come into the arena, but the color must make some difference because the cattle settle very fast," she says.

"It's really important to us that the cattle are handled properly. We don't want them running into the fence. They can't be mad or scared, or injured; we just don't tolerate that kind of thing. This color in the arena has a calming effect, and it makes our shows go smoothly and faster."

"The cattle don't get wild during the show. We try to pick our cattle well, but the color thing is just one more factor that helps. At a lot of cutting events, the arena walls are all painted bright white, and it's not a very natural color. It's too stark; it's startling to the cattle. In bright light it's almost a glare, and irritating. You want to have good lighting, but you don't need the stark white that might be alarming to the cattle."

She says cattle at their ranch have stayed more relaxed than most, while being used for cutting. "We've had very good success with the cattle continuing to gain weight while we've cut on them. It's partly the way we manage them, but we also feel that their surroundings (the calm colors) make a difference; they are not as stressed," says Nina.

"In one instance, the cattle were at a feedlot 100 miles away. We loaded them, brought them down here, used them in a show, then took them back. In that period of time, they gained several pounds a day. It was a five day show. They were probably empty when they loaded, we fed them well while they were here, and they kept on gaining. We didn't stress them much at all, and when we took them back, the guy was very happy with their condition."

"We try hard to avoid stressing cattle in the back pens. We work them quietly, with no dogs, no whips, but the color factor is a help." She talked with Bill Cummings at C&S and he told her the main thing about the tan color is that it creates less shadows, and everything blends better. "Cattle have no depth perception, and this color makes less shadows and no reflections, so there's not much to startle them. They've also used it in elephant chutes!"

Cummings has made 22 elephant handling facilities over the past 10 years chutes that are about 8 feet wide, 16 feet long, and 14 feet tall. "We've done projects for the Bronx zoo, and elephant restraints for other facilities around the nation. This color works really well for elephants," he says.

Cummings has been using this color for 27 years, since 1975, and says about 98 percent of the equipment they've made since then has been painted C&S Beige. "Every year more and more people call and ask about the color. It's just a common sandstone color, a warm, soothing color," he says.

About 15 or 20 years ago he was exhibiting some of his equipment at the Houston Livestock Show, and a professor from Texas A & M came through and asked him how he came up with that color. Cummings told him they'd stumbled onto it by accident. "I came from wheat country, and it's kind of a natural color. Cow manure and tan kind of go together!" The professor said they had done a study a few years earlier, that indicated this was the best color for cattle facilities.

"It was the best color due to lack of shadows. Animals don't see color like we do, and with their lack of depth perception, a shadow looks like a hole. You know how hard it is to drive cattle across a double yellow line on the highway. They just balk at it," says Cummings. In some of the western states, lines are painted on highways in lieu of cattle guards, and cattle don't cross them.

In some of his chutes, Cummings runs the floors lengthwise instead of crosswise, so the cattle will go in them easier. "These are all little things that a lot of people don't think about, but all these small factors do make a difference when you are handling cattle!" says Nina.

"Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, has done the most studies on cattle behavior and cattle handling, to try to design the best types of facilities for cattle. This is where most of us acquire our information. She does the studies and research, and gets right into the work areas and sees how they would affect the animals and how cattle would look at them," says Cummings.

"A lot of people are now painting their pens and work areas this color. We can't ship paint anymore: there are so many restrictions. But people can go to their Sherwin Williams dealer and we can fax them the mix numbers and percentages of different colors so they can mix it. It's surprising how well it works. It eliminates all the depth perception problem and reflections."

Cummings says, "We had a primer (undercoating) that color, and 27 years ago I decided to use it as the final coating, too, just because I liked the color. We've had a lot of success because of it; the cattle do flow better through facilities painted this way. If they see shadows and can't see something ahead of them to aim for, they balk. With the right color, it eliminates those shadows. And for pen fences or arena walls, it makes everything blend together and they don't worry about what's on the other side. They do stay calmer. The bright greens, reds and shiny whites that people have used in the past are not natural, and the cattle balk."

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