Good dairy-cow-handling skills are vital

Carole Curtis
Now Media Group


Appropriate animal handling practices are very important for dairy farms.

Extensive research shows how farm personnel behave and handle the cattle has an impact on animal welfare and productivity, Dr. Katy Proudfoot, The Ohio State University Extension animal welfare and behavior specialist, told listeners during a recent DAIReXNET presentation.

"It's very clear from the research that negative human behavior can impact fearfulness in cows and that's related to production, so more fearful animals produce less milk and those two things combine to impact the overall welfare of that animal and that herd," she said.

Negative behavior include slapping, pushing and hitting the animal with an object, as well as using prods, tail twisting, loud yelling and abrupt movements.

Research also shows the benefits of positive behavior, including reducing fear and increasing production, which contribute to better animal and herd welfare.

Low stress, positive handling techniques are expressed through gentle touching, stroking, soft talking and slow, more methodical movements.

From the cow's perspective

Dairy farm personnel should take into account the way cows hear and see, Proudfoot said. Thanks to their large, very mobile ears, their hearing is actually much better than humans, both in the range and volume, so what humans view as loud is amplified for them.

It's also important to recognize that their visual field is very different from humans. Their eyes are on the side of their heads and to the front, giving them poor forward depth perception.

"They can't really see very well in front of them, and they can't see anything behind them," she noted. That mean moving too quickly in or out of a cow's rear blind spot or in front of her will spark more fearful responses.

Cows stand in the middle of a personal flight zone and will move away if a person enters it. The size of that flight zone is impacted by breed, genetics and age, as well as human behavior.

"The variations in flight zones can tell you a little bit about fearfulness of cows — the larger the flight zone is, the more likely they are to be fearful of people," Proudfoot said.

Interestingly, studies on fear and aversion revealed that cows find shouting as distressing as a short electric shock. That could mean the prod isn't as aversive as we think it is, she noted, or it could be the shout is actually more aversive than we think to cows' more sensitive ears.

The effects of negative handler behavior were researched using people who behaved either positively or negatively with the study cows. The individual bovines' behavior, milk yield and physiological stress response were then measured as each handler came into the parlor.

Even though the handlers were merely present in the parlor and not handling the cows, the animals showed a stress response, such as increased heart rate, only when the negative handlers entered the parlor. The cows also behaved differently, moving more and more likely to kick, when the milking machines were attached and there was a tendency for milk yield to be lower, Proudfoot added.

"This tells us that cows can recognize people, distinguish between them and can remember who treats them negatively," she said.

A study to see how cows recognize people began with the animals being feed treats by a particular person. In follow-up tests, when the human faces were visible, cows chose their "rewarder" over 90 percent of the time. When faces were covered, Proudfoot said cows still selected their "rewarder" about half the time, suggesting they use smell and/or appearance, as well.

In an effort to understand the effects of handling, Australian researchers visited 66 dairy farms and measured the amount of negative handling that cows experienced, as well as flight zones, milk yields and conception rates. A wide variation in handling was documented, ranging from farms with very little negative handling to others where, 40 percent of the time, cows were handled in ways that were aversive, such as shouting or hitting.

The study concluded that negative handler behavior was correlated with cow fearfulness as measured by the size of the flight zone, lower milk yield and poorer conception rates.

"It should be mentioned that we know that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. All we knew is that these things are related," Proudfoot noted.

Benefits of handling training

When producers were given a intervention course on animal handling, they were found less likely to use negative handling. They also believed that their cows were easier to handle, which Proudfoot pointed out is generally the case when people learn low stress handling techniques.

Researchers also documented an increase in milk yield and conception rates after the training course. "There was some evidence that, by improving these skills, you can actually improve some indicators of productivity," she said.

Low-stress handling is a concept that has been discussed for decades, especially within the beef cow industry and by Dr. Temple Grandin. "There are handling techniques that handlers can learn so they do not need to shout, hit, kick or prod the cows to get them to move," Proudfoot pointed out.

A good way to determine if a farm could benefit from training is to look at and listen to the cows and the people, she suggested.

Do the cows have large flight zones? Do they look "on-edge" or vigilant? Do they quickly move away from you and other people? Do they slip/fall? Do they bunch? Do they vocalize? "These are all signs, from the cow, that tell you she may be experiencing fear," Proudfoot said.

The flight zone of the cows can be measured by, first, choosing a sample of cows at the feed bunk or in a pen. Slowly start to walk up to the cows, moving about one step per second. If the majority of the cows are moving away from you when you are somewhat less than 10 feet away, they are likely fearful, Proudfoot said..

Turning her attention to the handlers, Proudfoot asked if they hit or punch the cows. Are they using a prod when it isn't necessary? Are they yelling or cursing at the animals? Do they bang objects together to make loud noise? Do they drag calves? Do they generally seem like they don't care about the animals?

If a farm can answer "yes" to any of these questions, Proudfoot suggested, the handlers and their cows would benefit from handling training.

Choose a training class that teaches skills, she advised, including moving cows using their flight zone, point of balance and herd behavior; how to avoid negative behavior and use positive reinforcement.

The training should teach the skills, but it should also impact the handler's attitude. Improving skills can improve attitude and job satisfaction, she pointed out.

Owners should be aware of employees that do not care about the animals, or are not satisfied with their jobs since negative attitudes can lead to negative behavior.

Take action when the employees could benefit from training, if you see something that you are not comfortable with, or if employee attitude is a problem.

"If you see abuse, stop abuse," she said. "Animal care starts with you."

Handling training

Options for handling training currently available include the following:

·Merck DairyCare365 at

·Validus/Kansas State Animal Care Training at

·National Dairy FARM Program at