What to know to handle dairy cattle and avoid injury

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Working around cows is intuitive for people who've grown up on a farm or around animals, but it can be intimidating for someone unfamiliar with how to handle a cow.

If you've grown up on a farm or grown up working with large animals, you probably intuitively know how to act around cows. But for someone who hasn't grown up around these large animals, it can be intimidating and dangerous. 

That's why it's important to have the right words, tools and training methods to teach people how to work safely with animals, explained Libby Eiholzer, a bilingual dairy specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. Eiholzer provided points for those who aren't familiar with handling cows during a New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH) webinar provided by AgriSafe.

Understanding the nature of cows — their hearing, sight and behavior — helps provide the groundwork for best practices in handling these large animals. 

The first point to remember is — cows weigh a lot. Even a person that weighs 150 pounds is outweighed by a weaned calf that could weigh 200 to 300 pounds, according to Eiholzer. 

A calf can weigh 80 - 100 pounds when it's born and can quickly outweigh the people who work with them. Full-grown cows are big and powerful.

"They can really do damage just with their physical size," she said.  

Cows can hurt people without meaning to when they become nervous or scared. They can become aggressive when they feel threatened. 

"People can end up being crushed or stepped on if they end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Eiholzer. "It’s important to understand what the risks are and practice safe handling when around large animals."

Cows' hearing

With a sharp sense of hearing, cows are sensitive to noises, especially loud noises.

"We have to remember that a noise that is loud for a cow is not necessarily that loud for us," Eiholzer explained. "Before they were domesticated, that sharp sense of hearing helped them survive." 

As cows become accustomed to noises they hear in the barn, the best thing caretakers can do is to be calm and quiet to avoid making the cows nervous. 

Cows are flight animals and their sharp sense of hearing makes them sensitive to noise, causing them to startle at loud noises.

Cows' sight

Cow's have poor depth perception and a blind spot behind them. They tend to be nervous in the dark or around shadows and foreign objects. They will stop and sniff if they are unsure about something. 

With blurry vision from the cow's shoulder and back and a blind spot from the hip and back, it's always best to avoid scaring cows by approaching from the side or front, never from behind. 

"The best way to avoid getting kicked is to stay out of the blind spot," said Eiholzer. "Never surprise a cow."

When it comes to moving a cow, it's important to recognize and understand the animal's flight zone, or distance a handler should maintain from the cow for the animal to feel comfortable, and the blind spot and use them properly to herd cattle. If you have to approach from behind by the blind spot, talk to the cow. 

"Coming into the flight zone will cause a cow to move in the opposite direction," said Eiholzer.

When it comes to moving a cow, it's important to recognize and understand the animal's flight zone and the blind spot and use them properly to herd cattle. Here livestock nutrition consultant Alice Stafne works a pen of calves during a hands-on heifer handling exercise at Vita Plus Farm School at Pagel's Ponderosa Calf Ranch on June 19.

How quickly a person moves into the cow's personal bubble determines how quickly the cow moves away. If you come in too quickly, the cow could fall and get hurt. Never rush a cow. Give her space and time.

Another important consideration when moving cattle is point of balance. "The shoulder is what we call the cow's point of balance," Eiholzer said. 

If a person is behind the point of balance, the cow will continue walking forward, but if a person keeps walking forward past the cow's shoulder, "she's going to turn around and walk in the opposite direction," Eiholzer explained. If a handler stops at the point of balance, the cow will stop and wait to see what the handler is going to do before deciding if she's going to go forward or backward. 

Animal behavior

When cows are happy and comfortable, they are gentle creatures. But there are times they can become aggressive. Don't mess with a momma and her baby — be cautious when going into calving pens. 

Cows in heat can sometimes sneak up behind you and nibble on clothes or hair. Eiholzer recommends keeping an eye on them since, they "do sometimes try to mount people instead of cows." 

Use caution when entering a calving pen.

Any time cows are being sorted, separated from a herd, are feeling rushed, threatened or scared by shadows or loud noise, they can become aggressive. 

Cows can also become more aggressive when they are sick or getting vaccinations or medication.

"They are kind of like little kids," said Eiholzer. "They don't know that vaccine is going to make them not get sick or the medicine is going to help them get better. We need to take precautions and know what might happen so we are ready if it does happen."

Working around bulls

While not every farm uses bulls, some still do. Farms with bulls should have the pens clearly marked. 

"Don't go into a pen with a bull unless it's absolutely necessary," Eiholzer said.

But if you do have to go in the pen, be on the lookout for the bull. Find the bull and keep track of him while you're working, Eiholzer recommends. And know where the exits are so you can get out quickly if the bull shows signs of aggression.

When working with bulls, know where the exits are so you can get out quickly if needed.

If a bull puts its head down, arches its back and starts pawing the ground, "you don't want to be in that pen anymore," Eiholzer said. "A common mistake is to turn around and run, but that's going to excite any animal that's being aggressive."

"It's going to get them ready for the chase," said Eiholzer. "The best thing to do is exit slowly, watching the bull. Don't turn around."

Using needles safely

On a farm, injections are used for a lot of different things, some which might not be too bad for people and some that could be bad. But even just a needle stick can be serious. It's a puncture wound and could get infected.

"Farms aren't clean environments," Eiholzer said.

The injury should be reported and treated appropriately. Trying to recap the needle increases the risk of injury.

"It's so easy to miss the little opening of the caps and end up pricking yourself instead," said Eiholzer. 

Cows should be secured before being given injections so they don't hurt anyone or run off with syringes attached to them.

The best case scenario is to dispose of needles immediately in something like a sharps container, which could be a gallon container that can be carried around while working so needles are thrown out right away. 

Don't hold needles in your mouth or put them in your pocket so you don't inject yourself, Eiholzer added.

When getting ready to inject a cow, the cow should be locked in a secure position "where she's not going to do harm to us or run away," Eiholzer said. "There are few things worse than chasing a cow around a pen with a syringe still connected to the cow."

Once the cow is secure, stand where she can't kick you, reach around to the other side to give the injection and lean against her so you can sense her movements and she knows you are there, Eiholzer recommends. Tapping the cow with your hand a couple of times before actually giving the injection helps desensitize the cow so she is not as surprised. 

And if there is a cow behind the one being treated, sudden movements or noise from the patient could cause the other cow to kick.

Other best practices

Some things that will help in avoiding injuries when handling animals includes allowing animals to become accustomed to people from a young age. Remember to be calm quiet and gentle when around animals. 

Don't teach calves bad habits by roughhousing with them. Pushing on a calf's head and having them push back creates bad habits. 

Cows like a fixed routine. Don't change handling practices from one day to the next or from one shift to the next. While farmers stress following a milk routine for milk quality, it's important for the cows so they know what to expect each time and let their milk down.

"Cows that are nervous are not happy cows," said Eiholzer. "We want to make sure we are nice and calm and quiet, following the same routine as always because it's going to make the cows more comfortable. If they are comfortable, they are less likely to be aggressive, less likely to act in ways that are going to hurt us."