Sources of handling stress are accumulative in cattle. Stockmen can have a positive impact on the amount of stress cattle experience by planning ahead and being realistic about allowing adequate time to get things done well.
Low-stress handling techniques from the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) and Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs can minimize stress on both cattle and people, improve handling efficiency, and subsequently be beneficial to limit potential losses.
What losses can occur during handling?
- Handling alone impacts production, health, and an animal’s state of well-being. Lowered milk production and weight loss are direct indicators of stress cows experience. Pounds of milk and pounds of muscle are money in a farmer’s pocket. Shrink loss of body weight is directly impacted by the amount of time an animal is handled. Simply moving cattle from pasture to corrals or sorting from pen to pen for 30 minutes can decrease weight by 0.5-1%. Here is a reminder of what and where this weight loss is occurring in the animal’s body.
- Excretory shrink (loss of gut fill): feces and urine lost from natural digestion. When cattle are held off feed before shipping to market, excretory shrink accounts for most of the weight loss (2 to 6%), note this can be a larger percent with market cows. Also keep in mind that when cattle are stressed from handling they will defecate (poop) and urinate more often resulting in a lower scale reading.
- Tissue shrink (loss of actual muscle): tissue and muscle mass lost after excretory shrink occurs and the animal begins to dehydrate. Long hauls where cattle are without feed for 20 plus hours can begin to impact how well the animal will recover from this shrink. After 24 hours without feed some of the rumen microbes begin to die, which has a direct impact on the digestive efficiency and negative impacts on the immune system may be observed.
- Physiologic responses increase: the body’s natural physiologic responses to stress by increase metabolic processes to maintain normal homeostasis. As cattle are handled they increase the use of muscles which will result in needing more energy from metabolism and increasing the heart rate and respiratory rate. The amount that these rates increase will depend on the environmental conditions (hot, humid weather) and how much pressure people put on the cattle to get the job done. Stressful handling can also increase sweating during warmer weather. Handlers should also consider fluctuating temperatures throughout the day; animals that are sweaty when temperatures begin to fall in the evening could be at higher risk to get sick.
Shrink percentages can quickly increase if people push cattle too fast or use aggressive handling techniques (yelling, over-pressuring flight zones, excessive electric prod or sorting stick use). Dairies handle cows multiple times a day, thus every time cattle are handled inappropriately it increases the potential for shrink via weight loss resulting in lost milk production and increasing the potential for an unsafe working environment for employees.
Low-Stress Handling Techniques
When dairy cows are moved from their pens to the parlor, several low-stress handling techniques can be implemented.
- Patience is a virtue…a virtue that takes practice! Checking your attitude before handling cattle directly impacts how you behave and communicate with the animals. A positive attitude and patience are the foundation to daily low-stress handling.
- Walk in positions where cows can see you; avoid staying in the blind spot (directly behind the cow – the red shaded area in Figure 1).
- Apply pressure on an animal by stepping toward and entering into its flight zone (the dotted circle around the cow in Figure 1), and release pressure by taking a step back when a cow moves, or when getting a cow up from a lying position. Move in a zig-zag motion back and forth across the alley or pen to encourage forward motion.
- Use calm voices only when needed to encourage cows to move along; speaking to a cow when you must enter her blind spot alerts her that you are there and minimizes the startle response. Avoid loud noises, whistling, or continuous clapping.
- Cows walk slower than people (cows walk 2 mph; humans walk 3-4 mph), so handlers should adjust their pace to maintain cows at a quick walk. Extra caution should be used when cows approach corners or are walking on slippery surfaces. Handlers should step back and take pressure off cows as they are moving around corners to minimize cows bumping hips or slipping when they speed up to move away from the handlers pressure.
These are just a few tips to teach and review with all employees that work around cattle. Dairy owners and managers should establish clear expectations for humane, low-stress cattle handling and effectively communicate these expectations to employees on a routine basis. Daily implementation of low-stress cattle handling ensures good animal well-being which directly impacts the production of the animals and the work environment for employees. Both of which are driving factors to the sustainable success of the dairy.
What Employee Training Tools Exist?
Excellent video resources are available to complement any farm’s current employee training program on cattle handling and other critical animal husbandry tasks. Check out the following online resources:
- National FARM Program modules
- Merck Dairy Care365TM modules
- NBQA YouTube Channel
- University of Wisconsin Extension
- Michigan State University Extension
- Colorado State University
- Dairy Stockmansip videos from UMASH and University of Minnesota Extension
Reference: Gonzalez, L., K. Schwartzkopf-Genswein, M. Bryan, R. Silasi, and F. Brown. 2012. Factors affecting body weight loss during commercial long haul transport of cattle in North America. J. Anim. Sci. 90:3630-3639.