Safety Factors to Consider When Handling Cattle
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
Most accidents happen when people handling cattle don’t understand basic cow psychology, being in the wrong place at the wrong time or trying to force an animal to do something it doesn’t understand. Cattle can be dangerous when handled in a confined area if they panic and become defensive. Their reaction to a perceived threat to their safety is to flee or fight, and if they don’t have room to run away they will attack. Wild, nervous cattle are more dangerous in close quarters such as a small corral or barn stall because they panic quicker and need a lot more room (bigger flight zone). They may become defensive and charge at you, even if you are some distance away. Accidents at calving time may occur if a cow considers you a threat to her calf.
Even when working with gentle cattle, make sure you have room to dodge aside if a cow backs into you or turns around when you try to push her into the chute, for instance. Don’t be where you could get run over or smashed into the fence. Even a calm cow may kick if you come up behind her suddenly or poke her with a stick.
Know the animals and be prepared for what they might do. Putting two individuals into a corral together that don’t get along may lead to a fight, and they may be so busy fighting that they don’t pay attention to you. If you get in the way, they may crash into you as one pushes the other, or one may suddenly whirl away from a charge and run right over you if you’re too close.
When you know the individuals, you can generally predict what they’ll do in any given situation, and handle them accordingly. If you’re trying to handle cattle you don’t know, however, it helps to be able to read their body language. This gives you a clue to what they are thinking and you can anticipate their next action.
Cattle are front-heavy and use the head and neck for balance; watching the head and shoulders of an animal will tell you which way it is about to move. Cattle are also somewhat methodical in their actions and once an animal shifts its balance to move, it will move that direction.
You can also determine a cow’s thoughts by her head position and eyes – to know if she is calm, frightened, or angry. A cow with her head up and alert, giving you a steady stare, may mean she is aggressive, ready to stand her ground and fight. She may charge at you. If her eyes are rapidly moving, she may be nervous. If her eyes are moving slowly, she may still be evaluating you.
A cow that shakes her head at you is upset and angry. This is a threat gesture. An animal that bows its head and neck is defensive and prepared to fight; this is the posture taken by a bull or cow when sizing up an adversary – prepared to charge, or to counter and deflect a head charge. Cattle that show this behavior are not in a good frame of mind and may be dangerous.
If an animal you do not know makes aggressive gestures, back away slowly to give it more space, but do NOT run. Any sudden movement may cause the animal to charge at you or chase you. If this is an animal you know, and it should respect you, stand still and project your most firm, dominating thoughts, showing by your body language that you are not afraid and that you are the boss. When you work with a potentially aggressive animal, always carry a stick (stock whip or prod, or some kind of weapon) to give you a psychological advantage and convey your dominance. Like the horns of a boss cow, the weapon is your outward show of strength and you won’t have to use it if the animal respects you.
If an animal does charge, yell as loud as you can. Cattle have sensitive ears, and a high-pitched scream may temporarily distract or make them pause. This may give you a chance to dodge away. If you are handling a more placid animal in close quarters (such as a pet that has no fear of you) and it tries to bunt or push on you with its head, grab an ear and twist it. This will usually cause the animal to back off or move its head away from you.
Proper Restraint (safe for you, low stress for cattle) – Some management tasks (such as vaccination, dehorning, administering medication, putting in ear tags, etc.) require that the animal be restrained. Even a pet cow will not stand still for something that causes pain, discomfort or even mere annoyance. It is safer, and less stressful to the animal, to take time to properly immobilize her before attempting any procedure. Though it seems like it would be quicker to just walk up and squirt the pinkeye spray into her eye, for instance, she won’t understand that you are trying to help. She may run off, or sling her head away from you, or hurt you in her attempts to avoid the annoyance. It’s best to quietly restrain her BEFORE you try to give her the medication.
A gentle cow that is halter trained can be tied up for some types of procedures, but usually it’s best to restrain the animal in a chute, head-catcher or stanchion, or behind a stout gate (swung against the animal to hold her next to a solid fence or wall, with a rope behind her so she can’t back out). Any animal that is NOT gentle should be restrained in a proper chute.
Whatever method you use, it should be accomplished in a manner that will upset the animal the least. The most ideal situation is a catch pen or barn stall in which you can quietly herd the animal into the restraint (so it will put its head through the head-catcher or stanchion to eat feed you’ve put there) or into the end of a properly designed runway/ chute so it can’t run around the corral to avoid going in, and cannot turn around once it starts in. When using a squeeze chute (situated at the end of an alley or runway), don’t squeeze the animal too tightly – just enough to keep it from jumping around. When moving several cattle through a runway (as for vaccinations or delousing/deworming), don’t jam too many in at once or some may try to rear up over the ones in front of them.
When moving an animal through the runway, stay behind its shoulder, to encourage it to move forward. If a cow balks, prod her gently with a blunt stick, or twist her tail. If she responds by moving forward, reward her by halting your persuasion tactic.
Any time you can handle cattle without them running (to try to get away) or becoming upset, you minimize stress – and also keep them in a better frame of mind for cooperating next time. If they associate being “captured” with lots of yelling, running, whipping, dogs barking and biting them, etc. they will balk at going into the corral, chute or barn in the future. Handling cattle calmly and quietly makes it easier on you and on them, and trains them to be cooperative instead of evasive.