In a livestock farming operation, there are potential consequences if the cattle herd is not handled properly. Stressed cattle can compromise both productivity and profitability, making low-stress cattle handling techniques an essential skill for every cattle owner.
With low-stress cattle handling, the goal is to handle cattle without causing unnecessary stress or harm, ensuring they feel comfortable and safe at all times.
Why is this important?
According to Dr Andy Hentzen, production animal science lecturer at the University of Pretoria, stressed cattle can for example have negative impacts on impregnated cattle. From reduced growth rates to decreased birth weights and low offspring survival rates, compromised immune systems raise the risk of disease, and even increased stress reactivity.
“We work together with production animals. It is a relationship because we need them and they need us. We are dependent on the animal production. If that relationship is unhealthy and cattle are handled with a lot of stress, the impact is costly,” explains Hentzen.
Hentzen says cattle farmers who implement low-stress cattle handling will see improved production. “There will be a better gain rate for farmers, by selling more beef per kg.”
There can also be improvement in quantity and efficiency. Hentzen explains that there will also be an improvement in feed conversion, leading to healthier and more stable animals.
Cattle farmers can also expect animals that are not stressed to produce more beef with the same amount of animal feed. It can also lead to more calves being born.
Understanding the zones of the cattle
To implement low-stress cattle handling, farms should understand the concept of cattle zones, says Dr Johan Cloete, founder of VET2FARM herd health consultation services.
There are three cattle zones and they are similar to your personal space, representing the distance a handler must maintain for the animal to feel at ease.
Point of balance: The point of balance is the shoulder of the animal, where you are positioned to that shoulder.
Flight zone: The region surrounding an animal that can be approached by a person or other predator and cause the animal to flee is known as its flight zone.
Pressure zone: Depending on where the handler is, the pressure zone on the cattle grows and shrinks. It lies just outside the flight zone.
What to do to achieve low-stress handling
According to Hentzen, an important first step is for the cattle handler to know their position, when it is time to pressure an animal or sense the fear, and walk away.
He recommends the following steps:
Put yourself in the right position: The handler needs to be in the correct position, which leaves it up to the cattle to make the decision — to get away from the handler in the position the cattle want to go. The handler is not forcing the animal to go in a certain direction, but the cattle decide themselves.
Pressure the animal: Pressure is where you move towards the animal, moving into the flight zone. The cattle will choose to move to the left or the right and depending on your position as a handler you can lead the cattle to the desired direction without making the cattle feel they are in danger. There is no need to shout or hit the cattle.
Communication is key: When you approach the animal, it will first lift its head and it will look directly towards you. By then, the handler needs to stop and give time to the cattle to recognise if you are a friend or a foe.
Timing is also important: It will only take a few seconds and the cattle will relax or not. Their ears will relax, the cattle will look to the side, or they will lick their noses and look downwards. That is the type of communication that signals to the handler, that they can approach and continue.
If the cattle will not relax, a major sign is a moving tail. The cattle will warn the handler with noises that they are uncomfortable. Looking at you with erect ears is always a sign that cattle feel unsafe, and at that point, do not trust you. This will give the handler the sign to stop and move away.
Be aware that they are herd animals: Handle cattle as herd animals. They always want to be together. If cattle are leading the way out of the gate, the rest will follow.
What to avoid to achieve low-stress handling
It is important to avoid certain approaches that will instil fear or create bad memories for cattle as it could lead to infertility.
Fear is not an option: Do not instil fear in cattle: Avoid anything that the handler does that relates to fear.
Don’t come with force: Do not use sticks, ropes, or any form of force to stress on cattle.
Avoid creating bad memories with cattle: Cattle have their personalities, and they remember well. Their memory is distinctive around treatment. The aim is for the stress hormones to remain normal.
Never approach cattle directly from the back: Usually, cattle are startled when a handler comes from behind because they don’t see, which pushes up the stress hormone. They will kick or turn around and chase you.
Sudden movements: When you are among the animals, avoid sudden movements because they become weary and start to run off.
Essentially, to avoid a loss in your cattle production, handle your cattle with the best care. It remains important to understand that cattle have their personalities, and they remember, traumatic experiences causing hormonal stress. Keep them calm, happy, and feeling safe.
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