"Boys, the secret of trailing cattle is to never let your herd know that they are under restraint. Let everything that is done be done voluntarily by the cattle." Those words were written in a cowboy diary by Andy Adams nearly a century ago, but the concepts of handling and moving cattle remain the same today. Unfortunately, the quiet methods of the past have been forgotten by many modern cowboys. Progressive cattle producers, however, know that reducing animal stress will improve both productivity and safety.

Fear is a strong stressor
Cattle and other grazing, herding animals such as horses, are prey species. Fear motivates them to be constantly vigilant in order to escape from predators. Fear stress can raise stress hormones higher than many physical stressors. When cattle become agitated during handling they are motivated by fear. The circuits in the brain that control fear behavior have been studied and mapped. Feedlot operators who handle thousands of extensively-raised cattle have found that quiet handling during vaccinating enabled cattle to go back on feed more quickly.

Lowering the stress on your animals provides many benefits, including the reduction of dark cutters. The National Beef Quality Audit estimated that dark cutters cost the beef industry $5 for every fed animal slaughtered, an annual total of about $130 million dollars. Dark cutting beef is darker and drier than normal and has a shorter shelf life. Good quality beef has a final pH value close to 5.5. At pH values of 5.8 and above, both the tenderness and keeping quality of the fresh chilled meat is adversely affected. High pH meat is unsuitable for the premium trade in vacuum-packed fresh meats, and, darkcutting meat may be discounted by 10 percent or more.

High financial losses are also incurred by the livestock industry as a result of carcass bruising. Bruising is an impact injury that can occur at any stage in the transport chain and may be attributed to poor design of handling facilities, ignorant and abusive stockmanship, and poor road driving techniques during transportation. Contrary to popular belief, livestock can be bruised moments before slaughter and stunned cattle can be bruised until they are bled.

Proper cattle handling practices
There is an old saying that still holds true today: "You can tell what kind of a stock-man a person is by looking at his cattle." Early handling experiences have long-lasting effects on cattle. Those with previous experiences with gentle handling will be calmer and easier to handle in the future than cattle that have been handled roughly. Calves and cattle accustomed to gentle handling at the ranch of origin had fewer injuries at livestock markets because they had become accustomed to handling procedures.

In a review of several studies, I found that cortisol levels were two-thirds higher in animals subjected to rough treatment. Rough handling and sorting in poorly-designed facilities resulted in much greater increases in heart rate compared with handling in well-designed facilities. The severity and duration of a frightening handling procedure determine the length of time required for the heart rate to return to normal. Over 30 minutes is required for the heart rate to return to baseline levels after severe handling stress. However, cattle can become accustomed to handling procedures, which is documented through measurement of cortisol levels.

Cattle are animals that fear novelty and become accustomed to routine. They have good memories and animals with previous experience of gentle handling will be easier to handle. Both genetic factors and experience influence how cattle will react to handling.

Reducing stress in your herd will help you produce a higher quality product, and will help you maintain a herd that is easier to work with, and easier for your customers to handle. To reduce stress, you should work with your animals so they become accustomed to a variety of quiet handling methods such as people on foot, riders on horses and vehicles. Training animals to accept new experiences will reduce stress when the animals are moved to a new location.

Dr. Temple Grandin, assistant professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, is one of the world's leading authorities on animal behavior, animal welfare and livestock facilities design. Her book, "Beef Cattle Behaviour, Handling, and Facilities Design Book, 2nd Edition", is now available. To order, visit Dr. Grandin's Web site: www.grandin.com.