All the recent industry emphasis on low-stress, quiet methods of cattle handling has an added benefit — reducing workplace injuries.

In fact, an analysis of 10 years of Colorado Workmen's Compensation (CWC) claims found that accidents involving either cattle or horses were responsible for a high percentage of serious injuries on ranches, and at feedlots and livestock dealers (Table 1). The study was conducted by David Douphrate and his colleagues in Colorado State University's Department of Health and Environmental Sciences.

The researchers surveyed 1997-2006 CWC data and found that a lack of experience was a major factor in workplace injuries. In fact, workers with six months or less of experience suffered almost twice as many injuries as their more experienced counterparts. And, injuries involving either horses or cattle were the source of the most expensive injuries with the highest medical bills.

Table 2 clearly shows that riding horses and processing cattle through the squeeze chute caused the greatest percentage of injuries. Most of the injuries involving horses were falls from the horse; 20% of the horse-related injuries involved either a bucking horse or other horse behavior that resulted in the rider being thrown, and 15% of the horse accidents occurred when the horse stumbled.

In feedlots where people were working many cattle in the squeeze chute, the main causes of injuries were gates kicked into the worker (9%), squeeze chutes (5%) and other gate accidents (8%). At feedlots and livestock dealers, 21% of the accidents involved gates, fences or squeeze chutes. But these comprised only 4% of accidents on ranches, where horses were involved in a high percentage of the accidents.

When all types of injuries were tabulated for ranches and feedlots, bone fractures were reported in 14% of the accident reports. Hand and wrist injuries accounted for 17% of all injuries on ranches and 24% of the injuries on feedlots. These figures included both mild and severe injuries. Bone-shattering hand injuries were some of the most expensive injuries sustained.

Preventing accidents

Here are 10 tips for preventing horse and cattle accidents:

  • Handle cattle calmly at either a walk or a trot. No yelling, screaming, or whip cracking.

  • Understand the behavioral principles of the flight zone and the point of balance. When cattle are moving where you want them to move, back up and retreat from inside the flight zone. When they slow down or stop moving, reenter the flight zone to get them moving again. This is the principle of pressure and release. Train employees on low-stress handling methods. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has a major initiative to improve cattle handling.

  • Use quiet horses to move and handle cattle. Well-trained horses will help prevent bucking accidents.

  • Beware of the lone animal. An animal separated from its herd mates is a major cause of accidents involving gates. The frantic animal shoves a gate back into a handler's face because it's attempting to rejoin its herd mates.

  • Keep equipment well maintained. Worn-out latches on squeeze chutes have caused serious accidents when they have suddenly come loose. Gates should swing freely and have well-maintained latches that are easy to latch and unlatch.

  • Accustom cattle to being moved by both people on foot and on horseback. This will help prevent accidents when the cattle are shipped to a feedlot or meatpacking plant.

  • Cattle-handling facilities must have nonslip flooring in high traffic areas such as squeeze chutes, scales, crowd pens and loading ramps. Animals panic when they slip.

  • Only half fill the crowd pen leading to the single-file chute. Cattle will move easier and be less likely to shove a gate back into a person's face when not overcrowded.

  • Wait until the single-file chute is almost empty before putting more cattle into the crowd pen. The cattle will move into the lead-up chute that leads to the squeeze more easily if they're able to pass through the crowd pen and are not forced to wait.

  • Remove distractions from corrals and chutes that make cattle balk or turn back. Get down in the chute to see what cattle are seeing.

Some common distractions are dangling chains, a coat hung on a fence, passing vehicles, reflections on a wet floor, or slowly turning fan blades. The addition of a solid side may be required to prevent approaching cattle from seeing people on vehicles up ahead of them.

If cattle refuse to enter a dark processing building, remove sections of the metal walls. Replace the sections with white translucent panels to admit shadow-free daylight. Cattle will tend to move toward the brighter areas where the metal walls have been removed.

Temple Grandin is a Colorado State University animal science professor and a designer of livestock handling facilities (grandin.com).

Table 1. Causes and percentages of injuries with medical costs over $5,000/accident
Cause of accident Ranches & cattle raisers Feedlots & livestock dealers
Cattle or horses involved 24% 27%
Falls and slips not animal related 23% 43%
Strains such as back injury not animal related 21% 16%
Vehicles 4% 5%
Other causes 28% 9%
Data from Douphrate et al., 2009, Amer. J. Indus. Med., 52:391-407.
Table 2. Causes and percentages1 of livestock accidents on ranches, feedlots and at livestock dealers
Causes of injuries1 Ranches & cattle raisers Feedlots & dealers
Riding horses2 38% 26%
Sorting cattle on a horse 6% 12%
Moving cattle on foot 3% 6%
Cow kicks 7% 12%
Cow runs over person 3% 7%
Cow kicks gate 2% 9%
Total injuries involving livestock equipment3 4% 21%
1Data do not add up to 100% because only partial data from the paper are listed in this table.
2Most horse accidents are due to bucking and falls.
3Includes cow kicked gate into worker, squeeze chutes, and other accidents involving gates.
Source:Table adapted from Douphrate et al., 2009.
Table 3. Percentages of all types of injuries1 reported
Type of injury Ranches & cattle raisers Feedlots & livestock dealers
Bruises, contusions — all parts of the body 39% 57%
Broken bones — all parts of the body 14% 7%
Face injuries — includes nose and teeth 7% 9%
Lower arm injuries — includes fractures and bruises 6% 9%
Wrist, hands, fingers — includes fractures and bruises 17% 24%
1Data do not add up to 100% because only partial data in the paper are listed in this table.
Source:Table adapted from Douphrate et al., 2009.