Working with cattle in close confinement can be stressful for both man and beast, but with right equipment and methods, levels of efficiency and safety can be greatly improved.

“If it works for the cow, it works for the person,” says Edward Wise of Wise Agriculture, dealer for cattle handling equipment manufacturer Arrowquip.

Through his experience of working with beef cattle on ranches in the United States, Mr Wise says cattle handling systems and techniques need to have the safety of the cattle and their handlers in mind.

He also outlined the seven basics for low stress cattle handling.

1. Have a game plan

Prior to setting foot into the cattle pen, everyone involved in the project needs to be briefed.

“This should include the type of work being done on the cattle, what everyone’s responsibilities will be and even which pens you want to gather cattle in,” explains Mr Wise. “Communicate everything and don’t assume that your help knows what you want them to do.”

Part of having a game plan also includes having everything organised before cattle are gathered.

“If you’re delayed in getting your project started or are having to stop mid-way through to get more supplies, it’s just going to cause more stress on your cattle – and your help.”

2. Assess your cattle handling system

Before bringing cattle through a handling system, have a walk through it to see if there is anything that may slow the work flow.

“Cattle will flow better through the race if they can see that they have someplace to go and can see other cattle ahead of them. Walk through the entire handling system looking for things that may obstruct their view or may be flapping in their line of sight,” explains Mr Wise.

It’s also important to pay attention how equipment engineering will affect the movement of cattle. For example, a race section with sheeted sides will reduce distractions, therefore improve work flow.

“Check that gates and latches are easy to secure because poorly designed equipment will slow down progress and reduce safety,” he adds. “Every time a process has to be repeated because a gate has come open or a calf has turned around, the time effort doubles. Not only can this add stress to your stock, but it adds to your wage bill.”

3. Stay quiet

Whether cattle are being moved to a new pasture or being worked through a handling system, reducing excess noise will help reduce their stress levels.

If you go into a pen shouting and flapping your arms around, it’s going to cause cattle to get worked up and be harder to handle. Making noise is important to let cattle know you are there and can be used to apply pressure, but it needs to be done so appropriately.

Cattle handling equipment should also be quiet, keeping cattle calm as they move through the system. Mr Wise also pointed out that Arrowquip’s Q-Catch 86 is renowned as being one of the quietest manual squeeze crushes, engineered with nylon bushings and a rubber floor to reduce noise.

4. Understand flight zones

An animal’s flight zone is the space it requires before feeling the need to move when pressure is applied and will vary from animal to animal based on its temperament.

Within the flight zone is a point of balance, this can be used to move cattle based on where the handler applies pressure. Typically, it is at the shoulder. So, if an animal is facing you and you walk past the balance point and then enter its flight zone, then it will move forward without the need for additional force,” explained Mr Wise. “Cattle handling systems can be designed to utilise this natural behaviour for more efficient cattle handling.”

5. Work in small groups

To help utilise flight zone pressures, work cattle in smaller groups.

“This will help maintain greater control of the cattle by allowing the entire group to be moved with flight zone pressures, rather than just the cattle at the back. Rather than battling on to get cattle at the front of the group to move, you’ll be able to get everything where you want them to go much quicker," he said.

6. Don’t rush

The best way to work cattle efficiently and safely is to slow down. Keeping cattle calm and moving at a steady pace will get the job completed quicker than if things are rushed.

Adding excessive pressure and noise to speed up an animal’s movements is only going to cause it to stress and panic. This is when accidents happen. Keeping cattle calm and quiet will get the job done quickly and safely.

7. Make farm safety a priority

Working with cattle can be extremely dangerous if facilities are not fit for purpose and cattle aren’t handled properly. Priorities must be set on improving safety.

“If the best cow on your farm runs everyone she sees over a fence, then it’s time she went. If your cattle handling system consists of a few panels fastened to a calving gate, then it’s time to make an investment into a safer system,” concludes Mr Wise. “There are certain things that must take precedent to reduce the risk of injury and even death on a cattle farm. Your safety, the safety of those who work for you, and the safety of your cattle must be a priority.”