Cattle will move much more easily through your handling facility if you remove little distractions that make them balk. Cattle are sensitive to small things that make rapid movements. For example, a loose piece of chain hanging down in a single-file chute can ruin the efficiency of a well-designed system.
I have done handling demonstrations at many feedlots. In eight of 10 feedlots I was able to move 99% of the cattle through their handling facility and into the squeeze chute without an electric prod. In many places, only small changes were necessary before this was possible.
The most important distraction that had to be removed were the loose ends on chains that hold the backstop gates. A loose chain end that wriggles near the chute entrance makes the cattle balk and refuse to leave the crowd pen tub. (See Figure 1).
In places with a well-designed curved chute with solid sides, I found the cattle would move more easily if most of the backstops were tied open. When cattle are calm they back up less, and the backstops are not needed.
The most important backstop to tie open is the one at the entrance to the chute closest to the crowd pen. The one backstop that you need to keep is one that is 2-3 body lengths from the squeeze chute. A backstop here prevents the leaders from backing out.
If cattle back out when the entrance backstop is tied open, you should equip it with a remote control rope. This will make it possible to hold it open and then close it behind the cattle. Another hint: cattle will move more easily if the crowd pen is filled only half full (see Figure 2).
Fix Lighting Problems In facilities where I wasn't able to greatly reduce the need for an electric prod, there were problems with a dark entrance to the chute. In one facility, the cattle moved easily into the single-file chute when the large garage door in the building was left open.
When the door was closed, the building was so dark that the cattle refused to enter the chute. Cattle do not like to go into a dark place.
If a building is constructed over a handling facility, it must be designed to let in lots of light. Problems with the "black hole effect" are most likely to occur in facilities in a completely enclosed building. A small roof with no sides over a squeeze chute will seldom cause a problem.
In an existing building, lighting can often be improved by installing white translucent fiberglass panels in the walls. These panels let in lots of shadow-free light. The ideal illumination inside a building which is over a cattle handling facility should resemble a bright, cloudy day (see Figures 3 and 4).
Sometimes, movement inside a building can be improved by installing a light at the chute entrance. This often works well for facilitating movement at night. It will often not work on a bright, sunny day because the sun is many times brighter than artificial light.
When a new facility is being built, avoid positioning the wall of a building at the junction between the single-file chute and the crowd pen. Cattle will enter more easily into a building if they are lined up in single file before they go into the building. You should either have three body lengths or more of single-file chute outside a building or place the entire chute and crowd pen inside a building.
Another simple change is installing solid sides on chutes with open barred sides. Cattle will also remain calmer if the squeeze chute sides are covered. The most important area of coverage is the back half nearest the tail gate. This prevents cattle from seeing the operator as they enter the squeeze chute. If you don't believe this will work, try experimenting with some pieces of cardboard.
Avoid Yelling Two new Canadian studies show that cattle become stressed by yelling and whistling. Joe Stookey and associates at the University of Saskatchewan found that the sounds of people yelling and whistling would raise the animal's heartbeat more than the sound of a gate slamming. Cattle will remain calmer if the handlers are quiet.
Jeff Rushen and Anne Marie de Passille at AgriFoods Research in Canada found that cows were more likely to refuse to re-enter a chute where there had been yelling.
Why is yelling so distressful to cattle? Both yelling and whistling are high-pitched, intermittent sounds. Research with pigs has shown that such noise will cause more agitation and excitement than a steady sound. In nature, high-pitched sounds are animal distress calls. Yelling and whistling may make the cattle move, but it gets them upset because it is the sound of distress.
If cattle balk and refuse to move into a facility, figure out what is making them balk rather than resort to yelling or electric prods.
Any object or person making a sudden movement will cause cattle to balk. At one location I visited they were unable to figure out why the cattle balked. When I walked up the alley that led to the crowding tub, I saw a flexible spout on a water tank that waved in the wind. This was the cause.
You have to be a good observer to find the things that make cattle balk. Little details that most people don't notice will attract the attention of cattle and cause balking. They are most likely to balk at objects that make a rapid movement such as a person waving his arms or a moving object.
Anything that is high contrast is also likely to cause balking. This includes shadows, a shiny reflection, a paper cup on the ground or a change in flooring or fencing.
When cattle are calm it's easy to tell what is making them stop and look. A calm animal will look right at a small piece of chain that is wriggling. When the cattle get excited, it's impossible to see the thing that made them balk.
Most importantly, calm cattle handling will help improve productivity. Bridgett Voisinet a former student at Colorado State found that cattle who became excited and agitated in a squeeze chute had lower weight gains and tougher meat.