Good for cattle, good for people

Just about anyone who has spent time in beef-cattle production has suffered an injury or has family members or employees who have been injured while working cattle. They've also seen, probably many times, workers become frustrated, agitated and stressed out when uncooperative cattle have made their jobs more difficult and time consuming.

Nothing is likely to make working cattle as safe or easy as handling a litter of week-old kittens. But fortunately, producers often can make a few relatively minor changes to their facilities and handling practices that make the process safer and less stressful for workers, easier on cattle and ultimately more efficient for the operation.

Behavior first

"People make the difference," says veterinarian Lynn Locatelli, who regularly trains managers and crews in low-stress cattle-handling methods. She stresses that attitudes and teamwork among the people who handle cattle make a greater difference than facilities alone.

Some facilities, she says, are more user-friendly than others for both cattle and people. And where those facilities are complemented by skilled handling practices, it's the best of all worlds. But Locatelli has seen operations where poor handling negates the potential benefits of well-designed facilities, and others where the crews, through training and practice, have learned to work cattle calmly and efficiently in spite of less-than-perfect facility designs.

Jon Mollhagen, president of Moly Manufacturing, Lorraine, Kan., agrees that handling practices should work hand-in-hand with the design of working facilities, and adds that small modifications to processing areas sometimes can improve efficiency and worker safety. His company manufactures Silencer Hydraulic Squeeze Chutes and other livestock-handling equipment. He says that as he and his staff work with producers in designing facilities, they increasingly focus on worker safety and well-being as well as animal welfare and production efficiency.

Safe and efficient

"When we look at the design for a processing facility we measure just how many steps it takes to do a job," he says. In some designs, workers are constantly running from one gate to another, resulting in inefficient cattle processing and potentially exposing the worker to unnecessary risk. Ideally, he says, the facility should allow for fewer steps, minimize workers" exposure to cattle and provide escape options for workers when they are in with cattle.

He encourages low-stress handling but also notes that cattle are unpredictable. If facilities allow workers to pressure cattle from outside a fence rather than inside, they are at much lower risk. But if workers are going to be in an alley with cattle, well-placed 26-inch man gates or doors with quick access that allows them to easily move from one alley or pen to another can improve efficiency and safety. "We try to keep people out of high-impact areas wherever possible," he says.   

Mollhagen also promotes the idea that reducing noise in processing areas improves conditions and behavior for animals and workers, and his company works with customers to incorporate noise-reduction systems throughout processing facilities. In facilities designed to be quiet, workers tend to shout less and stress levels decline. Banging, clattering metal-on-metal noises startle cattle and add to the stress level, he says, while a continuous noise from a tractor engine, for example, is less disruptive.

When improper handling results in cattle becoming uncooperative, worker frustration can lead to even more aggressive handling and less cooperation. It's a vicious cycle, Locatelli says, that hurts cattle performance and health while also damaging worker morale and threatening worker safety.

Establish good handling practices early, she says, with calves on the ranch or at processing for cattle delivered for backgrounding or finish-ing. Positive experiences make cattle easier to handle at subsequent production stages such as re-implanting or shipping. High-stress experiences, on the other hand, make processing harder each time, leading to problems at each stage including bruising and dark cutters at slaughter.

Locatelli offers the following tips for reducing animal and worker stress while processing cattle.

  • Cattle will work with you if you take the time to interact with them. Learn how to apply and release pressure. Identify a leader within a group of cattle, get that animal started in the desired direction and let the rest follow.
  • Don't "mash" cattle from behind as it only creates stress and confuses cattle.
  • If you are building new facilities, seek out a design that works well for cattle and people, and facilitates low-stress handling methods. If working with existing facilities, fix any obvious problems, but otherwise focus on handling practices to make the best of what you have.
  • Don't use tubs in processing facilities for "storing" cattle. If they are trapped in the tub, cattle turn around and try to go back the way they came. Instead, she prefers to leave the tub open with a clear path into the snake or alley, allowing cattle to keep moving forward.
  • In place of a tub, Locatelli prefers a holding area called a "Bud Box," named for animal-handling expert Bud Williams, who designed the system.

Designing a dream facility

One operation that has experienced the benefits of the Bud Box and other facility improvements is North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center.

NDSU animal scientist Vern Anderson says that when the time came to re-design the center's cattle-working facilities, the faculty organized a team to plan the facility, its goals and its features. The team included researchers and also involved staff members who would use the facility for day-to-day cattle processing.

Their goals in designing the facility, Anderson says, were efficiency and low stress in working cattle and a reduction in labor. The resulting design features a Bud Box staging pen that feeds two side-by-side alleys leading to a single-file alley to the scale and chute.

The Bud Box, Anderson explains, incorporates a blind-end rectangular pen at the apex of the cattle flow where the animals turn back in the direction they came from, flowing into the working alley (see diagram). The design allows cattle to exhibit their normal behavior, and by turning back, they enter the double alley relatively easily.

The new facility also includes a Silencer Hydraulic Squeeze Chute, a single-animal scale with hydraulic center-opening gates and 21 overhead lights in the barn to eliminate shadows or dark spots that can disrupt cattle flow. Mollhagen notes that NDSU also has ordered turret gates and a flight-zone avoidance system from Moly Manufacturing to enhance worker safety.

This facility, Anderson says, is intended for processing relatively small groups of cattle from research pens, but the same concept could be scaled up for larger commercial operations.

"People who see it are surprised how simple the design is," Anderson says, "but it works incredibly well." In the NDSU design, the Bud Box uses solid sides to a height of 5 feet. Handlers can work cattle from outside the fence or inside, depending on the temperament of each group. The only exception, Anderson says, is that someone needs to work inside the fence when the center processes small calves that cannot see over the solid sides.

Locatelli says some producers resist the Bud Box concept based on a belief that it requires a worker to be in with the cattle, but she notes you can work cattle from outside the fence or on horseback inside the pen. And, she adds, people are in with cattle in a tub system as well. The Bud Box, coupled with good handling, can reduce safety issues because cattle follow their instincts. The direction you want them to go also is the direction they want to go.

The NDSU staff members have training in cattle handling and use low-stress methods. The combination of a user-friendly facility and calm handling results in easy processing, and Anderson says the new facility requires two fewer people for working cattle a significant labor savings. He also believes it improves worker safety. The Bud Box design, he explains, allows more-nervous cattle to keep their distance from handlers and move at their own pace. And, he adds, cattle are not in the system for very long, which keeps them from becoming agitated.

Some managers worry that low-stress handling takes more time, but Locatelli says once crews learn to move cattle through the system efficiently, speed happens on its own. The process might appear slower because of less shouting and chasing, but less time is wasted fighting cattle. If you know what to do, and the cattle know what you want them to do rather than behaving with confusion and panic, you create a much safer environment for workers.

"When cattle and crew members learn to work with each other," she says, "it's fun for the handlers. People who don't like handling cattle shouldn't be doing it."