Sick-cattle management begins in the home pen — not in the hospital pen. And it's in the home pen where pen riders can create trust in cattle, resulting in the ability to identify sick cattle early in the course of a disease.

Cattle that trust their handlers are less likely to conceal illness compared to cattle feeling threatened by their handlers.

It all begins with the non-verbal communication between pen riders and the animals they're charged with caring for — and increasing caretakers' power of observation. And while this concept of being psychiatrist as well as physician may expand the role of the pen rider, it can make feedyard life easier for everyone.

“Successful treatment depends a great deal on how the sick animal is identified and pulled from the pen,” says Tom Noffsinger, DVM, Binkleman, NE, a feedyard health and performance consultant specializing in interaction between caretakers and cattle. The goal is to encourage cattle to communicate their true state of health to their caretakers.

“A pen rider's job description should be expanded to create wellness, not primarily to detect illness,” Noffsinger says. “The end result is better productivity, a safer work environment, and cattle and people with the opportunity to perform to their potential.”

In addition to their traditional role, attending and consulting veterinarians need to help caretakers learn and implement management practices such as recognizing and reducing confinement anxiety and creating wellness, he says.

Understanding predator-prey relationships is the foundation for successful cattle handling and the development of communication with cattle, which enables early detection of disease. If the sick animal perceives the pen rider as a predator, the animal will instinctively attempt to conceal its sickness.

“Cattle exhibit very strong prey-animal instincts,” Noffsinger explains. “Prey animals have survived in nature aware that predators select the lame, depressed and weak.”

If caretakers behave like predators, cattle hide signs of depression and disease as long as possible. A better understanding of cattle's visual, auditory and sensory abilities allows a handler to override such predator tendencies as chasing and yelling. This aids in understanding how to effectively communicate with cattle.

“Trust is won by demonstrating to the cattle that the pen rider isn't a threat,” Noffsinger explains. “It's part of understanding there's a difference between horsemanship and stockmanship.”

This relationship can be developed by properly communicating to cattle, such as avoiding focused, aggressive and rigid movements. In other words, not acting like a predator preying on the weaker animals in the pen.

Noffsinger suggests pen riders use pen movements that apply subtle pressure to initiate a response and release it to reward a positive response. Handlers who reward cattle motion with release of pressure can quickly train cattle, create mutual respect and develop trust between themselves and the cattle.

Understanding that cattle like to see what's pressuring them and where they're being asked to go is fundamental to low-stress handling. Cattle that trust handlers willingly turn their backs to them and walk away when placed in motion by the handlers, Noffsinger explains.

“This attitude of willingness based on effective communication has a positive effect on subsequent tasks,” he adds.

Pen riders can even help by not looking directly at, or making eye contact with, the target animal.

“Eye contact may be perceived as a threat,” he says. “The sick animal may not only want to avoid the pen rider — it may be driven to escape the rider as a reactive means of survival.”

A positive impact

The livestock industry and the direct caregivers in any situation have a responsibility to provide cattle with physical comfort, disease protection, nutritional requirements and emotional stability, says Lynn Locatelli, DVM, Binkleman, NE. She's a consulting feedlot DVM specializing in low-stress cattle handling and care.

“It's important for veterinarians to understand that physical and psychological stress play important roles in cattle disease resistance, confinement anxiety, receiving adaptation and ultimately performance,” Locatelli explains. “Caretakers can be trained to realize that all human contact with cattle impacts animal well-being.”

She says human contact can create either a very positive impact, or a devestating impact on cattle health, performance and cattle and human safety. Caretakers who concentrate on low-stress handling skills increase their power of observation and their ability to recognize abnormal behavior and attitude.

This helps the caregiver develop the confidence and skill to positively manipulate animal behavior for improved levels of cattle health, performance and emotional well-being — equaling animal welfare.

“Building on this thought process in pen riders will increase their interest in diagnostics, and their confidence and skill in creating positive interventions,” Locatelli adds. “Shifting caretaker priorities from disease detection to performance enhancement results in new, unexpectedly high levels of cattle welfare.”

The pen rider's improved observational skills can be combined with conventional diagnostic tools such as rectal temperature measurement, lung scoring, respiratory effort, fill, demeanor and general appearance to guide treatment decisions.

“Sick cattle deserve individual diagnostic efforts,” Locatelli says. “Expect cattle to respond to treatment products and caregiver interactions.”

Following treatment, she says careful, quiet and specific sick-pen management is essential to healing. It's important at this stage to encourage sick cattle to exercise, rest, eat and drink.

Once sick cattle are treated, treatment teams should spend time in the hospital pens convincing cattle that handlers can be in the pen without expecting them to go to the chute.

“Treatment teams should encourage cattle to walk quietly out of the pen without disturbing pen mates,” Locatelli says. “Then we expect sick cattle to walk quietly into the chute soon after removal from the pen, stand quietly to be examined and treated, and immediately leave the chute and go to the hospital bunk or tank.”

This requires treatment crews to be skilled handlers who really care about healing sick cattle, and invest time to create a healing environment. All cattle-handling events are opportunities to create a positive impact on cattle health and performance, and shouldn't be a stress.

“Each and every action by every person who comes in contact with cattle shapes the subsequent behavior of those animals,” Locatelli adds. “Caregivers' actions create behaviors in cattle that make the cattle either easier to work with, or more difficult to work with later on.”

Clint Peck is a former BEEF Senior Editor based in Billings, MT.