by: Heather Smith Thomas

During the past 20 years there have been improvements made in the designs of cattle working facilities and in the handling of cattle when being processed during routine vaccinations, at slaughter plants, etc. but some cattle operations still need to “tune up” their handling methods. Dr. Temple Grandin (Colorado State University) has been instrumental in developing many of the user-friendly facilities and in educating producers about low stress handling.

There is still a wide gap between the stockmen who handle their cattle quietly and calmly and those who don't. “There are still some people who can't seem to stop yelling and screaming at cattle. The percentage of people who are good at handling cattle has expanded—maybe doubled or tripled, but there is a bottom 10 percent who are just as bad as ever,” says Grandin.

“One of the problems I've found with a lot of people is that even when you show them better ways to handle the cattle they have a tendency to gradually regress back to their old bad habits. I divide people up into categories. There are the believers and the non-believers. The people who become believers are dedicated in their handling methods and they don't slip backward,” she says. They have a purpose and a goal that stays foremost in their minds.

“Then there is a large group of people in the middle. With them, you constantly have to stay on top of it to keep things good. Otherwise they slip back toward their old methods, and don't realize they are slipping. Their vocalization may turn into yelling, and they are carrying around the hot shot again, or putting too many cattle into the crowd pen,” says Grandin.

Good handling requires more walking and takes a little more time, and people tend to take shortcuts. “People don't want to walk—to keep bringing up smaller bunches—unless they are true believers. They have to walk more and it takes more time, to do it right. I don't care what kind of facility design you have, if there are too many cattle in the crowd pen it won't work very well,” she says.

When people start slipping backward, they may think they are still doing low stress handling, but they aren't. “I go back to their place a year later and they are not.” It's been a gradual process and they haven't noticed how they've regressed.

“They might have a hot shot in the crowd pen again, and the cattle are jammed up again. Sometimes you have to use some real numbers—like how many cattle to put in the crowd pen—so they won't put too many in there,” she says.

“I also teach people to time the bunches of cattle. You have to wait until the lead-up chute has some space in it again before you fill the crowd pen. Otherwise you can't take advantage of following behavior,” she says.

“One of the worst designs in a cattle handling facility is not enough lead-up space. If it will only hold two or three cows there is no way you can encourage any following behavior and you are constantly fighting the cows to make them go into it.” They need to see the cow going down the chute ahead, to want to follow.

“The easiest thing to do if you have some portable panels is to add a couple more chute clicks/spaces. If you can have at least four cows waiting in line and one or two in the squeeze, then you can bring the cattle up in groups of four and get following behavior,” she explains. The minimum chute length would be one that will hold four adult cattle, and it's better to have even more chute space. The cattle will flow through a lot quicker and easier if you can utilize their natural behavior.

“The mistake many people make is that the short chute is full and they fill up the crowd pen and those cattle turn around, unable to follow the cattle ahead of them into the chute, and then you are fighting them to get them turned back toward the chute again. So the simplest rules to follow, regardless of design, is to never have the crowd pen more than half full, and use following behavior,” says Grandin.

“I am also a big proponent of measuring your cattle handling. How many cattle did you use the electric prod on? This should be a very small number, like one or two percent just to get them into the squeeze. How many cattle come out of the squeeze chute at a run? They should be walking or trotting out, not jumping and running. So you could count how many speeders you have (anything faster than a trot),” she says.

“If the animal is uncomfortable or being hurt by the squeeze chute or hot shot, it will be mooing. If you brand cattle they will bellow, but in general they should not bellow in response to handling,” she explains.

Another measurement is falling down. “If a cow falls down coming out of the squeeze or runs and crashes into the fence or gate, this is another clue that your handling is too stressful,” she says.

“The other thing I am adamant about is to not carry an electric prod. I don't recommend banning these because once in awhile you get a cow that absolutely won't go into the squeeze. It's easier on her to buzz her with the prod than to crank her tail or beat on her,” says Grandin.

“Another thing people can do to encourage a cow to move forward in the chute is to walk back by her. If you are traveling inside the flight zone (close to the cow) and moving rapidly in the opposite direction of desired movement, the cow tends to move forward into the squeeze chute,” she explains. This stimulates the cow to move, in her instinct to get away from the pressure of your presence that close to her.

Some people feel that Grandin only emphasizes the negative things about cattle handling but her reply is that they have to get rid of the bad things before they can start developing the positive things. “Some of the indicators of calm handling (that you can use when evaluating cattle's reaction in the chute) include soft brown eyes. If the cows have soft brown eyes when they are in the corrals when you are sorting, in the crowd pen and coming up the alley to the squeeze, your cattle are calm. Animal scientists have done a number of studies that have shown that when the eye whites show, the animal is getting fearful. You can measure how many of the animals have soft brown eyes, because that is something very positive, but you need to get rid of all the negative things before you can measure something like soft brown eyes,” says Grandin.

“How many cattle that you catch in the squeeze chute are still keeping soft brown eyes? They don't like having their ears touched, but if you do it gently they may keep those soft brown eyes.”

In her books, there are diagrams to help a person understand low stress handling. Even though a person can't learn everything from a book, and diagrams can't tell you exactly how to do it, they can give a starting point. “My books are for beginners, but they have to start somewhere.      There are some people who should not be handling cattle. They enjoy seeing cattle get excited, or ‘cowboying' them, and this is always counterproductive,” she says.

One positive note is that more people are becoming aware of low stress handling, and more of them may want to try it. “I always tell people, however, that when they first try it there will be a learning phase, and some things they do with cattle will be a little slower. They also need to get rid of all the things in the corral and next to the chute that are distractions for cattle—because distractions can really mess them up.”

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