To successfully understand low stress animal handling, it is important to understand animal behavior: what an animal sees, what the animal "thinks", and why the animal reacts in a specific manner. Of course individual animals have personalities, quirks and traits, but herd animal behavior shares some basic causes and underlying motivations.

"The behavior of an animal is a product of biological variables such as species history and genetic make-up, and environmental variables like past and present experiences," says Paul Rapnicki, DVM, MBA, clinical professor of dairy production and veterinary population medicine at the University of Minnesota. Rapnicki recommends that cattle handlers communicate with a cow through her five senses: taste, smell, hearing (low and high frequencies), sight (the primary sense for grazing animals, though they have very poor depth perception), and touch. Touch encompasses pressure, pain, warmth, and cold.

Handlers need to understand the definition of words used to affect animal behavior. Stressor is an event threatening or potentially threatening an animal. Stress response is the body's response to stress. "It evolves as an adaptive response but the consequences of the response can be maladaptive," says Rapnicki. "There is a cost to mounting a stress response. Stress doesn't make you sick but it can cause a condition where you are receptive to illnesses, where the immune system does not work as well."

Stress responses are measured in the neuroendocrine system (HPA), the autonomic nervous system, the immune system, and by behavior. Learning to recognize and manipulate stress inspired behavior in animals is paramount to successful stockmanship.

Low stress handlers incorporate the flight zone (the circle of safety around an animal) and the pressure area (outside the flight zone but close enough to cause some pressure). A key point is to "Be honest with cattle," Rapnicki emphasizes. "Always let them see where we are. A cow cannot see behind her so do not stress her by standing behind. The best place is by her side."

A cow's ear and eye move in tandem. "Pressure animals where they can see you," advises Rapnicki. "Only one person at a time should pressure." Cows walk at a speed of two miles per hour, people walk at about three to four miles an hour. Walking along side (with) animals will slow them down. Walking in the opposite direction will speed them up.

Ron Gill and Rick Machen, both professors and extension livestock specialists in Texas, and Curt Pate, the "horse whisperer" from Montana, have developed four basic principles of cattle behavior. Their principles:

  1. Cattle want to see you. Cattle can see everywhere but directly behind them or a small blind spot in front of them. Movement toward the blind spot or behind them causes an animal to turn their head to keep you in their line of sight. This can be used to your advantage to change direction of cattle or to your detriment if you are trying to drive cattle straight. When working from behind, it is important to keep moving side to side to prevent cattle from turning in an effort to keep you in their line of sight.
  2. Cattle want to go around you. Armed with this tip, position yourself such that, when they do go around you, they are pointed directly at the gate or destination you had in mind. They'll think it was their idea to go there.
  3. Cattle want to be with and will go to other cattle. A herding instinct is natural among "prey animals". There is safety in numbers and they know it. Stockmen can take advantage of this natural instinct by working from the front of cattle. If you start at the front, those in the back will follow. This is also why you should never leave one animal alone in a pen.
  4. Cattle can think of only one thing at a time. If cattle are thinking about anything other than what they are being asked to do, you will need to change their mind first before putting pressure on them. Fear is the biggest distraction. Any perception that the handler is a "predator" must be avoided.

Gill, Machen and Pate also recommend moving in triangles. Moving in the animal's flight zone will create or correct movement. Retreating from the flight zone will slow or stop movement. Cattle are not mind readers. You have to teach, condition and prepare them. You may not have time to re-educate your entire herd, but quality time spent with replacement heifers will pay dividends for years to come. Spend time with heifers in both the pasture and the pens.

The days of "whoop & holler" cattle handling need to pass, say Gill, Machen and Pate. Shouting, poking and prodding cattle is unnecessary. Actually such handler behavior is counterproductive and will distract cattle from what you really want them to do. Numerous others will handle your cattle after they have left your care. Bad habits and unruly behavior are learned. Make sure your cattle (calves) are started correctly.

The trio stresses that although beef consumers remain interested in food safety and wholesomeness, they are more concerned than before about where and how their food is produced. And that, includes how the animals are treated.

This is part 2 of the series. To read part one, click here.

Source: Michelle Proctor and Craig Payne, DVM