Recently I had a scary experience at a feedlot with wild, agitated cattle. When I brought a group up to the crowd pen in the processing area, the cattle turned back and repeatedly raced back and forth past me in the alley.

Normally when cattle turn back and run past a handler, they go back to their herdmates at the end of the alley and stay there. Instead, these animals repeatedly ran back and forth past me from one end of the alley to the other.

These cattle were really wild compared to a normal group of cattle, and much more difficult to handle. Once back in their home pen, I tried a little experiment to help determine why they were so wild.

  • First, I had a cowboy enter their pen on a horse and ride through the middle of the cattle. They remained calm and quietly flowed around the horse. These cattle were at ease with a person on horseback.

  • Next, I had the cowboy dismount and walk beside the horse. When the cowboy was leading his horse, the cattle became a bit more agitated.

  • Finally, I tied the horse to the fence and had the cowboy walk through the cattle on foot. As soon as the cowboy walked to the middle of the pen, the cattle started running wildly and milling.

It was clear these animals were fully habituated to people on horseback but not to being moved by people on foot.

To make cattle easier to handle when they leave a ranch or feedlot, they must have some previous experience with being moved in and out of pens by a person on foot. Unless this is done, handling them at their next location may be very difficult.

Some of the wildest feedlot cattle I've encountered at a slaughter plant were animals exclusively handled on horseback at the feedlot. At one plant, the yard manager named the feedlot with the worst cattle. It was a feedlot that had beautiful, calm handling, but everything was done on horseback. Even in the processing area, cattle were never moved in or out of a pen by a person on foot.

Still, this feedlot had the worst cattle at the plant, a problem easily prevented by just giving the cattle some “on foot” experience when moving them into the chute for vaccinations. In fact, this is standard practice in many feedlots.

Different pictures

A bovine views a person on foot and one on a horse as totally different things. Animals are sensory-based thinkers; their memories are in specific pictures, smells or sounds. Since the animal doesn't have verbal language, it stores its memories as specific pictures. A person on a horse was safe and familiar; a person on foot was frightening and new.

In my little experiment, the cattle only became slightly agitated when the cowboy led the horse. In this situation, the “picture” in the cattle's brains was more similar to a man on a horse than the “picture” of a man with no horse.

New things are scary for animals when suddenly introduced. To accustom animals to new things, they must be quietly and gently introduced. It's important that an animal's first experiences with people moving them on foot occur before they leave the ranch or feedlot.

Watch the dogs

Another dangerous behavior some cattle exhibit is kicking at people with both back feet, a behavior I've observed by cattle from certain feedlots. A common cause is working cattle with dogs in confined places such as chutes. Since the animals aren't able to move away from a biting dog, they lash out and kick.

Dogs on ranches are fine provided they're used in open fields or large pens where the cattle can easily move away. A dog biting at cattle forced to stand in a single-file chute may teach cattle to kick.

There are three things feedlot managers and ranchers can do to make cattle easier to handle when they leave their operation.

  • Always move animals calmly with no yelling. Use low-stress handling methods.

  • Move cattle calmly in and out of pens with both horses and people on foot so they become accustomed to people on foot and on horseback walking quietly among them.

  • Don't use dogs in confined places such as chutes and small pens.

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Visit her website at www.grandin.com.