Thoughts on stock handling

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Recently I was sitting in a tree-stand, like many of you have probably done recently, ‘hunting’ deer. As my mind began to wander, I started thinking about other things I should be doing or would need to be doing soon. One of those things I knew I needed to do was write this column.

Sometimes the most difficult part of writing a column can be deciding what to write about. But I had a good idea of what topic to write about. During the past year I have been talking to beef producers to assess educational needs that exist within the industry in my region. One of the most common issues that we hear about in need of improvement on beef cattle farms is that of handling and restraint systems.

Interestingly, I have always thought that cattle handling is a little bit like deer hunting in that we all think we have considerable expertise, but in fact most of us are in serious need of more schooling.

For the purposes of this column, we will discuss mainly stock handling concepts and skills. If you need plans for cattle or small ruminant chute systems, contact me or one of the other members of the Penn State Extension Livestock Team.

Keep in mind that stressful handling of livestock will cost you in the long run. Stress can decrease weight gain, decrease resistance to some diseases, impair rumen function, decrease conception rates, and decrease meat quality. Furthermore, animals that aren’t handled effectively may be more stressed and difficult to work with on subsequent trips through the chute.

Following are several things to think about. I have included thoughts on the subject from Dr. Ryan Reuter, from an article entitled “7 Habits of Highly Effective Stock Handlers.” Dr. Reuter is with the Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Understand that cattle and small ruminants are prey animals

They are always vigilant. They have wide-angle vision and can pretty much see behind themselves. They like to know where we are at all times while being moved or handled.

Understand the animal’s flight zone and balance points

The flight zone is easy to visualize. Just picture a circle around that animal. When you step into that circle you will cause the animal to move away. Obviously some animals have a much larger flight zone than others. The point of balance is a place near the shoulder where, depending where we place ourselves in relation to it, we can control the animal’s movements better – starting, stopping, and turning.

Apply pressure

This doesn’t mean pushing and shoving when the animals get into the chute. With practice you can get a feel for applying pressure to the cattle, sheep, or goats by positioning yourself at the right place at the right time.

Stay quiet

This seems to be difficult for many people. But, frankly the animals probably don’t understand much English, no matter how we phrase it to them. The successful stockman will always stay quiet when handling animals. If the animal is not responding positively to what we do, then we need to try to position ourselves differently. Yelling and screaming simply will not be effective.

Practice patience

Genetics can play a role in how animals behave, but I subscribe to what older, life-long cattlemen have told me and that is cattle behavior is mostly due to how you work around them. Animals will do what comes naturally to them in that situation. Whether we like it or not and whether we realize it or not, the animals may be doing what they do because of us. Be patient with them. And, yes, I know how it can be when they aren’t responding well and you have a million other things to do that day.

Improve performance by practicing

Again, I know how it can be and you usually aren’t looking for one more job to do. But, some experts recommend that we practice working animals.Run the stock through the chute without doing anything to them. This practice will help them understand what we want them to do.

We could go on with this discussion, but I need to close this article. Books have been written on this subject and a few people have spent their entire career in this area.

To learn more, seek out long-time successful stockmen and stockwomen. Learn what you can from others. Read articles written by persons with recognized expertise on this subject. Just understanding the basics would help the situation on many farms.

(The author is a Penn State Extension livestock team member based in Columbia County. He specializes in livestock/forage systems. Dave owns and operates a cattle and sheep farm in Montour County.)

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Dave Hartman is a Penn State Extension livestock team member based in Columbia County. He specializes in livestock/forage systems. Dave owns and operates a cattle and sheep farm in Montour County.

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