It's wonderful to see the increasing emphasis cattle producers are putting on low-stress cattle handling. Handling cattle quietly has many benefits, including improved weight gain and greater safety for handlers.

Details matter to cattle, and small details that you may not notice can make quiet cattle handling either difficult or impossible. Here are a few simple tactics to improve both your facility and the way you handle cattle.

Eliminate visual distractions

Cattle are very sensitive to rapid movement and high contrasts of light and dark. A small chain hanging down in the entrance of a chute, for instance, can cause animals to balk and it should be removed. I've warned about dangling chains for years, but many people still fail to notice the little details that spook cattle. You need to get down in your chutes and see what the cattle see. There may be paper cups on the ground or a coat flung over the fence.

Cattle may also refuse to move forward if they can see people ahead or vehicles driving by. This is why many chutes work better with solid sides.

Too many one-way backstops in a chute can also retard cattle movement. I've improved cattle movement in many facilities by simply tying some of the backstops open. And equipping a backstop located near the chute entrance with a remote control rope to hold it open for cattle facilitated entry into the chute because each animal no longer had to push through the backstop.

Shiny reflections on either a wet floor or metal can also be a problem. Non-reflective surfaces are best for cattle movement. Painting facilities a single, uniform color is also recommended.

In addition, cattle will sometimes refuse to walk from a dirt floor onto a concrete floor. This problem can often be solved by putting some dirt on the concrete to reduce the contrast between the dirt floor and the concrete.

Cattle don't like dark buildings

Cattle-handling facilities located inside buildings often have more problems with cattle balking than outdoor facilities. If it's really sunny outside, animals often refuse to enter a dark building, something I call the “black hole” effect.

To solve this problem, you need to get natural daylight into the building. This can be remedied by removing a portion of a side wall to let daylight in, or installing white translucent plastic panels in the building to let in lots of shadow-free sunlight.

Eliminating shadows also helps to improve movement. On a bright sunny day, artificial light inside a building won't provide sufficient light to eliminate the “black hole” effect because sunlight is much brighter than artificial light. At night, indirect electric lighting is often effective for attracting cattle into buildings or trucks.

Non-slip flooring

Animals panic if they start to slip. Non-slip flooring is essential for low-stress cattle handling because calm animals are easier to handle.

When animals get agitated, it takes 20-30 minutes for their heart rate to return to normal. If a squeeze chute or a single-file, lead-up chute has a slick floor, cattle often become agitated when their feet make repeated small slips. Slipping is often the greatest problem in small confined areas such as scales, lead-up chutes and crowd pens.

Existing worn-out concrete floors can be made non-slip by installing woven tire tread mats or a grid made from steel bars. If steel bars are used, they must be cut and welded so the grid lays completely flat on the floor. Don't crisscross the bars on top of each other. Cattle are likely to damage their hooves due to catching them in the gap.

Use cattle following behavior

Cattle like to follow the leader. They will enter the lead-up chute more easily if it's partially or almost empty before attempting to fill it. If there's room in the chute for three or more cattle to enter, you can take advantage of natural following behavior.

The crowd pen that leads up to the single-file chute shouldn't be filled until there's room in the single-file chute to enable the animals to immediately enter. The crowd pen should really be renamed the “passing through” pen. Cattle will enter the single-file chute more easily if they aren't held still in the crowd pen when the single-file chute is full. If cattle are held in the crowd pen too long, it may become harder to get them to enter the single-file chute because they have turned around.

All crowd pens, regardless of design, should be filled only halfway. Filling it completely is among the most common cattle-handling mistakes. People often do this to reduce the amount of walking required, but good cattle handling will require more walking.

Measure cattle handling

Only what is measured can be managed. Throughout my career I've worked with many ranchers and feedlots on cattle handling. I can drastically improve the handling while onsite, but when I return a year later, the yelling and electric-prod use often have returned. People usually don't even realize it's happened because reverting back to old practices often happens slowly.

To prevent this, handling should be measured with numbers. This makes it possible to determine if practices are improving or getting worse. To measure handling, keep score on the number of animals that have the following faults and determine the percentages:

  1. Percentage that fall during handling.

  2. Percentage that are moved faster than a trot.

  3. Percentage that run into a gate or fence.

  4. Percentage moved with electric prod.

  5. Percentage that vocalize when caught by the squeeze. Don't score when ear tagging or other procedures start.

If you're doing a good job of low-stress handling, the percentage of cattle that have any one of these faults will be very low. National Cattlemen's Beef Association guidelines state that handling practices need to be evaluated if more than 2% fall or more than 10% are moved with an electric prod. Many ranchers and feeders are doing much better than this.

Temple Grandin is an associate professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Visit her website at www.grandin.com.

Web resources for cattle handling.