by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 2

In the last issue we began a discussion of stress and how it affects the cowherd. One of the most obvious stressors for cattle is the environment including heat and cold, rain, snow, mud, etc. A major factor with environmental issues is that we have very limited control over these forces. We can only provide so much shelter, heating, cooling, etc. for a herd of cattle and the larger the herd the more challenging (and expensive) this can become.

There are other stressors that affect the cow herd aside from environment. Two of the more prominent and extensively researched include handling – this can also include transportation, and disease or health. We might also include nutrition into that category as well. What we tend to find as we begin a close examination of stress in cattle is that many of these factors are tied together in some way or another.

In this part of the series we will take a look at handling stress and how it affects animals when they are handled well or handled poorly. Since some of this is related to handling facilities, their design, construction and upkeep, there is an environment component involved here as well.

One point that needs to be made here: As is evidenced on what seems to be an increasing basis, a variety of groups seem to be highly motivated to show the inherent cruelty in the livestock industry, even when it does not exist. However, in addition to the fact that it seems the “world is watching” (everyone has a video camera or cell phone with a camera), low stress handling of cattle makes a huge amount of sense to stress cattle as little as possible during handling. This helps prevent injury both to the animal and to the handler and it typically helps insure that the animals are easier to handle the next time. Also, since stress is generally detrimental to health and performance, any way it can be reduced will help offset the problem effects.

Cattle Behavior 101

In an effort to reduce handling stress, it helps to understand why cattle act the way they do. Work at Michigan State provides a nice review of this topic. Three ingredients control an animal's actions: anatomy, instinct and experience. Consider anatomy first. Cattle see the world differently than we do. Because they are “prey” animals, their eyes are shaped differently and are located on the sides of their heads. A cow can see up to 300 degrees around itself, whereas a human has roughly a 140-degree field of vision. Cow eyes are more rectangular—our eyes are round—and have silted rather than round pupils. They see most things with only one eye and therefore don't have good depth perception. Cattle cannot see directly behind them and worry when people are in their blind spot. Cattle also have limited vertical vision and have to put their heads down to see the ground in front of them. Their vision limitations mean that a shadow across an alley will stop them in their tracks, or a quick motion detected out of the corner of one eye will startle them and send them running. When they are a safe distance away, they will turn and face the disturbance so they can get a better look with both eyes. Cattle can see a lot but don't see it well. Cattle do have keen hearing, and any loud noise—especially angry people's voices—is very disturbing. In fact, research has demonstrated that people yelling can be more stressful than even the use of a hot shot. However, cattle have difficulty pinpointing where the sound came from. All loud noises will frighten animals, even if we understand that the noise should not be an issue. Cattle have a sensitive sense of smell, though they rely more on vision.

Instincts are those things that we all do because we are hard-wired to do them. We jump or startle at loud noises, for example. Cattle are prey animals and find safety in numbers. An isolated or single animal becomes distressed just because it is by itself. Cattle will take their time to slowly explore anything new in their environment. The coat flapping on the side of the chute is a BIG deal to them and is translated to mean danger. When cattle move, they like to follow one another, partly because they then don't need to look where they are going (remember, they can not see their feet without putting their heads down) and partly because they are staying with the group. Other behavioral characteristics include a preference to move toward areas with better lighting and uphill instead of downhill.

Experience (good or bad) rounds out why cattle act the way they do. They can quickly learn that a tractor and wagon mean feed. They can also learn that being chased somewhere usually leads to increased fear and distress. Cattle are more distressed by being sorted out to go single file up a chute with people hollering at them than they are by the vaccination they get while in the chute. It is extremely important that we make cattle's first experience with handling or new environments as stress-free as possible so they are willing to do it again and even easier the next time.

Handling and Stress

Chronic stress on all farm animals, including cattle can have negative effects on their health, productivity or performance and general welfare (Rushen and de Passille, 2004). In lactating animals acute stress at nursing or milking is most obviously apparent in a reduced milk yield resulting primarily from a decrease in oxytocin secretion leading to increased residual milk. Cattle are susceptible to a variety of psychological stressors, which must be understood if we are to reduce stress on the animals. Rough or overly aggressive handling leads cattle to become frightened of people and to be stressed in their presence. Improving handling and animal care requires that we understand more about how cattle react to people, the types of handling they find stressful and the reasons that some managers or handlers use rough handling techniques. Given the importance of good cattle management skills for animal welfare, it is necessary to find the most effective ways of improving management and reducing cattle's fear of people. Some specific recommendations include:

1. Added Contact with People. Cattle can be fearful of people if they do not have sufficient exposure to people especially when they are young. Although this is generally more of a problem in beef production than in dairy production, large scale cattle operations of all types may result in less contact between people. Range cattle can be especially susceptible to these factors since exposure to people can be very limited. Increased gentle (quiet, calm) handling of younger cattle has been shown repeatedly to reduce the fearfulness of cattle towards people. Spending time out with your herds helps them to grow accustomed to you. Taking a bucket of feed out to them so they associate your presence with positive stimuli is also very useful.

2. Identifying Which Types of Handling Are Aversive. The first step in improving the “relationship” between cattle and the handler is to identify the particular behaviors that cattle find stressful. Examples of rough handling practices that increase fearfulness and restlessness in cattle include shouting, slapping, punching, hitting with the hand or stick, tail twisting and use of an electric prod. Generally, this includes any practice that can result in pain for the animal. Try to minimize these as much as possible.

3. Avoiding "Learned Fear" of the Handler. At times, even the best cattle manager will have to handle animals in a stressful manner. Often this is done for the animal's own welfare or for proper management. This can include injections, dehorning, castration, ID practices such as rear tagging or branding. However, one risk is that the animal will become frightened of that person. Learned fear of people can have serious effects on an animal's welfare so ways to prevent development of this fear are needed and important. It may be possible to mask the identity of the person in fairly simple ways. There is now clear evidence that cattle can tell different people apart. There are a number of cues that the animal might use. Cattle have a reasonable degree of visual acuity and are capable of color vision and visual cues. Visual cues, especially those associated with clothing seem to be particularly important in recognition of people by cattle. Studies have shown that under some circumstances a loss of recognition can occur following simple changes in the appearance of people, such as a change of clothes. It may be possible to take advantage of this association to reduce the occurrence of learned fears of particular individuals, for example, by wearing special colored clothes when essential but aversive treatments are applied to animals. However, cattle can use other visual cues to recognize people. While it may be possible to hide a person's identity under some circumstances, we should not underestimate the ability of cows to use subtle features to recognize people.

4. Altering the Cattle Handler's Attitudes. Clearly identifying which behaviors cattle find objectionable and which they find positive or rewarding is essential when making recommendations about improving ways of handling animals. However, the way people handle animals is likely to be a reflection of long held beliefs about how animals need to be handled and attitudes towards animals in general. Thus, recommendations alone may not be sufficient to change the behavior of the people. Efforts to alter these beliefs, through educational programs showing the negative effects of poor handling on the fearfulness and productivity of cattle, along with examples of good and poor handling techniques may be an effective means of changing the way people interact with the animals.

5. Identifying Why People Mishandle Animals. In addition to attitudes and general opinions on animals, situational factors can have a marked influence on the way animals are handled. Consequently, to improve the ways cattle are handled, it helps to know what circumstances lead to animals being handled roughly. Situations that can lead to adverse and overly-aggressive handling of animals include frustration and impatience with animals, difficulty in moving cattle, time pressures, poorly designed or constructed equipment, equipment not working properly, low job satisfaction, and family problems, etc. If specific issues are identified, herd managers can take steps to improve work facilities and job situations which can lead to an increase in overall job satisfaction and hence job quality.

Facilities – some very basics

Two very basic things are extremely important with facilities. First – you need to have some! You need a large pen to gather cattle off pasture, a crowd pen to be able to pressure a small number of animals, a single-file alley at least two animals long with some type of head catch at the end and, ideally, a couple of pens to sort into coming out of the chute. The second important component is that you walk in the facilities to see what's wrong when animals are balking. Is there a shadow that looks like a bar, or a wet spot on the floor, or is the corner too sharp, is the single-file chute a dark tunnel, etc. Facilities don't have to be fancy, curved, solid–sided, etc., but they should be an aid to your working cattle and not a hindrance.


Some very basic planning and skills can help reduce handling stress for cattle significantly. This stress reduction can help improve a number of performance factors as well as making the handling process safer for both the animal and the handler. As has been stated before, using common sense and planning, can reduce stress and associated effects significantly. In the final part of this series we will examine how disease, health and nutrition play a roll in stress on the animal and once again how the producer can minimize some of these affects.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 County Road 4711, Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at sblez@verizon.net.

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