Whether they know it or not, feedyard crew members train cattle. Every time handlers process, ride pens or pull a calf for treatment, the animals respond to human activities. Whether that response is positive or negative depends on how crews conduct themselves, and the best methods often do not come instinctively.

Animal-handling practices that reduce stress for cattle and people, and produce positive results in terms of animal behavior, health, performance and beef quality must be learned. Although producers, researchers and teachers might have different opinions about the ideal facilities or the finer points of animal behavior, the idea that reducing stress benefits livestock production has gained broad acceptance.

“We have the best antibiotics available for treating sick cattle, and a selection of well-engineered vaccines for prevention,” says veterinarian Lynn Locatelli with Twin Forks Veterinary Clinic of Benkelman, Neb. “And yet we actually have seen an increase in feedyard mortality over the past 10 years. So we asked ourselves ‘what is missing?’” Dr. Locatelli says she and her colleague Tom Noffsinger concluded that a likely opportunity for improvement was to adopt handling practices that minimize stress and anxiety.

With that goal in mind, Twin Forks Veterinary Clinic brought animal-handling specialist Bud Williams to Nebraska to spend most of 2003 training cow-calf producers and feedyard crews. Mr. Williams conducted a series of low-stress animal-handling classes and visited cattle operations for on-site follow-up training. Since then, the Twin Forks veterinarians have integrated training for low-stress handling into their practice, with much of what they teach based on Mr. Williams’ methods.

Dr. Noffsinger cites several reasons for veterinarians to help their clients adopt low-stress handling methods. One is that effective, easy handling makes everyone’s job easier in the processing area and around the feedyard. Next, good handling practices represent another tool in the toolbox, along with vaccines, antibiotics and good nutrition, for protecting animal health and performance.

Good for animals
Benefits to animals include lower morbidity rates, possibly fewer bullers and, especially, improved performance. Dr. Locatelli notes that she has been using ultrasound scanning for 10 years to help feedyard clients sort cattle and project marketing dates. She says that in operations that have adopted low-stress handling, she finds she can adjust performance projections upward. In operations where crews do not handle cattle as well, she sees more morbidity and has to adjust projections downward.

Greg Glunz, assistant manager at Fairleigh Feed Yard of Scott City, Kan., says he has seen improvements in several areas since the feedyard’s staff adopted low-stress handling methods. “Dr. Noffsinger has worked with us on handling issues for about two years,” he says, “and has really changed everyone’s way of thinking and improved their powers of observation.” He adds that the staff includes experienced pen riders, top hands who have been doing it for a long time. After some initial skepticism, they all have fully bought into the concept. “It’s amazing to watch how they interact with the cattle and can detect individuals that are falling off a little.”

Dr. Locatelli explains that prey animals instinctively conceal weakness to avoid being singled out by predators. A feed-truck driver for example, might report seeing a sick calf in a pen, but when the pen riders go to find it, the calves all look healthy. The calf did not perceive the truck as a predator but responds to the pen riders as a prey animal would, pretending to be healthy and moving around normally with the herd.

Non-threatening handling allows the cattle to learn to trust their caretakers. So instead of concealing weakness, sick animals communicate their illness, facilitating timely treatment and better recovery. Understanding more about the visual, auditory and sensory abilities of cattle encourages handlers to override their predator tendencies, such as to chase and yell, Dr. Locatelli says. “In the long run, finding animals to treat becomes secondary to keeping animals healthy.”

Mr. Glunz says his staff begins training cattle and acclimating them to easy handling right at the loading chute on arrival. At 40,000-head capacity, the Fairleigh operation receives cattle from numerous sources, so some are calm and some are more excitable. The crews have learned to adjust accordingly and train them to work easily. “We’re doing things we never would have dreamed of just five or 10 years ago,” Mr. Glunz says. “One example is with pens of new arrivals or pens where consumption has dropped off, we’ll move them out of the pen and take them for a walk up and down the alleyway.” Intake, he says, can improve dramatically.

Cattle feeders often find that intake drops off for a few days following re-implanting, because of the stress of processing. But Mr. Glunz says that when cattle become accustomed to easy handling, processing becomes easier and cattle go right back on feed.

Derek Wilson owns a family operation, Wilson Feedyard Inc. of Grant, Neb., and has adopted similar methods and seen similar results. “We see our role as providing cattle with feed and water and keeping them happy,” he says. “Feed and water are easy, but keeping them happy is a little more complicated.”

The 3,000-head feedyard primarily feeds calves, most arriving fresh off their dams in the fall. Mr. Wilson also exercises cattle, particularly high-risk calves during their first 30 to 40 days in the feedyard. He describes the handling program as a combination of cattle training, exercise and acclimation.

“Our pull rates and death loss with last year’s fall run of calves was significantly lower than other years,” he says. “It used to take 30 to 45 minutes to empty a pen for processing or shipping. Now the cattle just walk right out.” Mr. Wilson adds that although it is difficult to calculate a direct financial impact, he is confident performance has improved along with reductions in sickness and death loss. “Just a small increase in gain is worth a lot of money.”

As a consulting veterinarian, Dr. Locatelli says where feedyards have trained their crews and improved
handling, the performance benefits are apparent. Although it is important to resolve health problems and minimize losses, she says spending time on low-stress handling, performance evaluation, ultrasound sorting and marketing consultation is time well-spent toward boosting profitability.

Benefits to people
“In this industry,” Dr. Noffsinger says, “we have pen riders who are responsible for the care of literally millions of dollars in cattle inventory, but in some cases have little training. They want to do a good job, and we can give them tools for improvement.”

Following training for low-stress handling, feedyard workers find that their jobs become easier, less frustrating and more rewarding. Attitudes improve and turnover becomes almost a non-issue, he says.

Mr. Glunz agrees. “The frustration level goes way down. They’re not fighting with cattle, they’re working with them.” At the beginning of the training program, he recalls, Dr. Noffsinger took video recordings of each crew member working cattle, then sat down with them to review their methods. As their training proceeded and they learned low-stress methods, he would show them the original videos along with more current recordings. “They were amazed at the improvement,” he says.

It is an ongoing process, Mr. Glunz adds. First you need to get buy-in from everyone involved, then you need to continuously reinforce and evaluate. Fairleigh Feed Yard has set up a monitoring and evaluation program for pen riders, tracking morbidity, death loss and medical expenses for each pen. Mr. Glunz says that at first he was concerned the riders would resist, but they have embraced the idea. They want to demonstrate their success and identify ways to improve.

Mr. Wilson also says his employees have accepted the new approach to animal handling with enthusiasm, although some were a little unsure at first. They do not have to pull as many calves but can identify and pull the ones that need treatment more easily. “In an operation this size, every staff member has multiple responsibilities,” he says. “Less time spent doctoring means more time to get other things done. As the owner and manager, I’m loving it, and the crew loves it, too.”