Cattle handling should be low stress
The importance of low-stress cattle handling was more than just an idea last week, it was on display as dairy and beef farmers had the chance to see it used on real animals during a husbandry conference.
The Dairy and Beef Animal Husbandry conference March 1 in Madison included physical demonstrations from Ben Barlett, a veterinarian who also holds an animal husbandry degree (that’s what they called it back then, he says.)
For the last 10 to 15 years he has been working on “better, smarter ways to handle cattle” following the example of pioneers like Temple Grandin, Bud Williams and even horse trainer Pat Parelli.
“It’s not that the ways we did things before were bad, but we’ve been picking up new things along the way.”
Bartlett said that farmers should care about this kind of handling because it works and because it makes it safer for the cattle and for the people working with the cattle.
Many injuries sustained by people working on farms come from cattle handling and he wants to see those numbers brought down. It’s also important in this day and age to use methods that will pass the muster of public perception.
“It’s not only critical that we do a good job, but that we look like we’re doing a good job,” he said. “What does it look like when people who aren’t farmers are driving up and down the road?”
He knows it’s not all “warm and fuzzy” and that the bottom line is profitability. For dairy producers it’s easy to measure.
Some research has shown that aversive handling methods can cause a reduction of 10 percent in milk production.
“The cows tell you someone is in the parlor that they don’t like and that costs you money.”
Key is knowing why
Working first with a group of Holstein dairy heifers and then a group of beef cattle, Bartlett said the key to the methods he demonstrated is understanding “why a cow does what she does.”
Their anatomy, instinct and experience all play into why they act as they do.
A cow can see almost all the way around both sides of her head and she has good depth perception, he said, but then asked his listeners to flatten their hands and place them under their eyes, demonstrating how cows see.
“Cows don’t like to go downhill because they can’t see their feet.” They also have a blind spot directly behind them. It’s really going to bug them if you’re in that spot.
“Cows see the world differently. They hear better than we do and hear ranges of sound that we don’t hear.” Ironically cows can’t pinpoint exactly where sounds are coming from, he added.
Cows can smell better than we do, Bartlett said; they can even smell the fear of their herd mates. “You can’t change that. It’s just the way they are.”
Then there’s the brain. Cows take in a lot of information but don’t sort it out very well. Much of their action is based on their instinct as a prey animal — they flee first and ask questions later.
“We are going to eat them and they know it. We have the little round eyes of a predator. They know your dogs are predators too.”
They’re all bovines of course, but dairy cattle are raised differently — like orphans — said Bartlett. “They didn’t have their mothers to teach them how to act.”
Still there are the rules that govern their lives. That includes the herd pecking order. When cows are brought into the parlor for milking the boss cow is generally in the middle with cows lower in the pecking order falling in behind.
“What’s the chance that you pushing on the little cow at the end of the line is going to make her want to push on that boss cow who’s going to womp her? There’s a whole world going on there.” And cattle handlers need to understand it, he said.
Bad handling affects milk
Australian research has shown that aversive handling methods on heifers results in more lameness and less milk production.
“Young cattle aren’t dumb but when we raise them in pens they are pretty inexperienced,” he told the dairy producers during a handling session with Holstein heifers.
No matter what kind of cattle are being worked there are a couple of golden rules — the floor should not be slippery and the lighting should be good. “Shadows are going to cost you,” he advised. “Your facilities should help you work cattle. They should be safe for your cattle and safe for you.”
He demonstrated how to place himself in the “flight zone” of the animal — the area where she felt she was in danger from his presence — and the heifer moved away from him. “Getting into the flight zone is like shouting with body language,” he said.
Because people use language to communicate, he said, they are kind of handicapped with regard to body language — they don’t use it much so they don’t understand its importance.
For dairy producers this concept can be a tough one because many dairy pens are so small that people may be in the flight zone just by being there. Still, he wants handlers to understand that “when you get in their flight zone, they’re going to move.”
It’s also important to understand that when cattle are alone or separated from the group, their flight zone gets larger.
Bartlett said that moving cattle is often a project that people want to get done on a timetable and he hears people say that they don’t have time for these low-stress handling methods. But, he counters that time can actually be saved by keeping the cattle quiet and understanding how they react.
“People say they can’t do this low-stress stuff, they’ve got to get this job done. But just a little pressure can get a job done very quickly. It’s different than ‘slow and quiet’ — it really works,” he said.
“If you get them stirred up it’ll take them 30 minutes to calm down. They are oblivious to the rest of the world. When animals get crazy you might as well go get a cup of coffee and let them settle down.”
It takes so little motion to get them to move, he said. “It drives me bananas when people keep pushing animals when they’re doing what we want them to do.”
Because of the blind spot the animal has, he advised walking alongside her back end rather than directly behind her. If the facility has a narrow alley, walk back and forth behind the cow, he advised.
Bartlett demonstrated how averting his eyes allowed him to walk past a heifer without drawing her notice, adding that Border Collies can do a tremendous amount of work with cattle just by using their eyes.
“You got a wild cow? Don’t look at it,” he said. “Eyes put pressure on them. Keep track of them out of the corner of your eye.”
On the dairy farm, the person who’s gathering the cows and bringing them to the parlor is one of the more important people.
Bartlett also commented on some dairy heifers who may become “pets” because of the way they were handled — maybe they went to the fair.
“I wouldn’t make pets out of them. Without respect for people they can be very dangerous. If they don’t respect you this isn’t a very healthy relationship.”
The program on dairy and beef animal husbandry was sponsored by Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Priefert Ranch Equipment, Equity, Wisconsin Beef Council the University of Wisconsin Extension and the UW Extension Dairy Team.