Keeping cattle calm increases productivity

Loretta Sorensen
Photo by Loretta SorensenReducing stress in cattle can significantly improve profit margins and reduce risk of injury to handlers and animals.
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“Calm down.”

That’s the first suggestion Dr. Temple Grandin offers cattle owners working to improve low-stress handling methods. Dr. Grandin recently offered insight on animal behavior and facility design at the Wisconsin Dairy & Beef Industry Animal Husbandry Conference in Appleton, WI. Dr. Grandin says yelling and whistling, two traditional handling methods, are ineffective methods of handling cattle and the stress they induce can lead to significant reductions in productivity.

“Large animals can seriously injure handlers and/or themselves if they become excited or agitated,” Dr. Grandin says. “Reducing stress on animals has been demonstrated to improve productivity and physiological changes.”

Research has shown that the adverse effects of stress on animals induced by electric prods, restraint and other handling methods lowered conception rates, reduced immune function cattle and impaired rumen function. Because of their wide-angle vision, cattle are sensitive to elements of their environment that may escape the attention of handlers.

“A simple change in facilities can often make a big difference in the stress level of the cattle,” Dr. Grandin says. “Anything that distracts them can become a problem. Coats on a fence, vehicles or even the reflection from a mud puddle. All those things can cause cattle to balk and become stressed. Sometimes if you cover the sides of the chute you can eliminate a lot of problems with that one step. Make sure there’s no material flapping or anything that’s going to distract the animal.”

Solid chute walls are especially important if cattle aren’t accustomed to being handled. Blocking vision eliminates escape attempts and lower stress levels. A darkened artificial insemination box which completely blocks vision will quiet the wildest cow.

Ruminant animals’ ability to perceive depth at ground level is poor, which probably explains why the animals stop and lower their head if they encounter a blind area on the ground. Shadows also cause livestock to balk.

“I can’t emphasize enough that filling a crowd pen half full is most effective,” Dr. Grandin says. “That’s because people generally enter the animals’ flight zone when they’re in the crowd pen. If you deeply invade that zone, the cattle may turn back and run over you. If the cattle do attempt to turn back, the handler should back up and retreat from that flight zone. The reason they turn on you is that they’re trying to escape from the person that’s deep inside their flight zone.”

Extremely tame livestock can be difficult to drive because they no longer have a flight zone. It’s most effective to lead them with a feed bucket or halter. Approaching an animal head on will always increase flight zone size.

Moving into an animal’s flight zone will cause it to move away. If the handler gets too deep into the flight zone the animal will either bolt and run away or turn and run past the person. The best place to move is on the edge of the flight zone. Size of the flight zone will gradually diminish when animals receive frequent, gentle handling.

“With cattle that have no previous herding experience, people simulate predators with ‘stalking behavior,’ which elicits predatory ‘avoidance behavior’ in cattle,” Dr. Grandin says. “The sight of a ‘predator’ circling the herd causes anxiety in cattle. They anticipate an impending attack. It’s a hard wired behavior that won’t change. Use of this stimulus can be used to herd animals because it triggers instinctual bunching behavior. The more a person works cattle in this way, the calmer they become and instinctual bunching behavior is gradually replaced with calm, learned behavior.”

Research has shown that cattle are more likely to flinch or jump in response to intermittent movements and sounds. Sounds of people yelling and/or whistling have been proven to raise heart rates for cattle more than the sound of gates clanging or other equipment noises. Using low pitched sounds helps induce calm.

Cattle, as well as horses and other grazing animals, point their ears toward things that concern them. Use of that “ear radar” can help handlers identify the source of a distraction. Calm animals point their ears and eyes toward distractions that should be removed, such as a swinging chain.

“One of the biggest struggles I see for cattlemen is that they adopt low-stress methods for a while and then a year or so later they’ve slipped back into old habits,” Dr. Grandin says. “You can measure the effectiveness of your handling methods in some simple ways. Monitor how many cattle fell when you worked them? What’s the number of cattle you worked with the electric prod? If you had more than two percent of your cattle that fell, your methods aren’t low stress enough. If you’re using the prod on more than 10 percent of you cattle, you’re inducing stress.”

Cattle sometimes rear up and become agitated while waiting in a single file chute. A common cause of the behavior is a handler leaning over the chute, deeply penetrating the animal’s flight zone. Retreating from the flight zone generally results in significant calming.

“Check how many animals vocalize in your squeeze chute when you work them,” Dr. Grandin says. “To score your handling methods you can also monitor how many cattle run out of the squeeze chute. You want them to walk or trot. If they’re running when you release them, their stress level is too high.”

Some cattle breeds, such as Brahman and Brahman cross cattle are genetically more excitable and difficult to handle. Angus cattle are more excitable than Herefords. Holsteins move more slowly than either Angus or Herefords.

“Learn to use the flight zone as a point of balance,” Dr. Grandin says. “The principle is to walk inside the flight zone in the opposite direction that you want the cattle to move, then return to that position by walking outside the flight zone. The cattle have to be able to see you to make this movement pattern work. In chute systems with solid sides you may need to make a small slit at cow-eye level along the inner radius. In curved systems the handler should work along the inner radius and the outer radius should have a completely solid fence. In systems with catwalks alongside the chute cattle will be able to see you and the chute sides should be completely solid.”

More information about Dr. Grandin’s research and handling methods are available at