How to Handle Cattle

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Learn the instinctual behavior patterns of your cattle to help keep them calm.
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Pressure Zone, the single tan animal has lifted its head and is aware of the handler, who has entered the outer edge of the pressure zone. Flight Zone, the four black cattle have turned away because the handler walked through the pressure zone and entered the edge of the flight zone. No reaction, the animals in the distance are unaware of the handler's presence.
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The point of balance is located at the shoulder when the handler is close, and moves to just behind the eye when the handler is farther away.
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Nancy Irlbeck from Wellington, Colorado, demonstrates how her sheep quietly move around the “bubble” that’s formed by the outer edge of the flight zone.
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To move a single animal forward, stand behind the point of balance and stay out of the blind spot. When you’re close, the point of balance will be at the shoulder. When you’re farther away, the point of balance may move to just behind the eye. When you’re on the outer edge of the pressure zone, the animal will become aware of your presence and turn to face you. When you penetrate the edge of the flight zone, the animal will turn away and move.

All species of grazing animals are born with natural behavior patterns that help them avoid predators. Handlers can make use of these behaviors to gather and move livestock. Calm animals are easier to handle than agitated animals — and studies show that animals that remain calm during handling have increased weight gain, better reproduction, and fewer injuries. Grazing animals naturally employ five basic instinctual behavior patterns to avoid predators. If you understand these behaviors, you’ll be able to gather and drive almost any grazing animal herd.

1. When grazing animals first spot a predator, they’ll turn and face it. The predator is in the pressure zone. The pressure zone is the area in which an animal first becomes aware of a potential threat — whether a predator or an approaching handler — and turns its head or body to face it (see illustration). The animal monitors the location of the threat and decides when to stay and when to move away.

2. At the point where the animals can no longer tolerate the handler’s approach, they’ll turn and move away. The handler has entered the flight zone. As the handler approaches, the handler exits the pressure zone and enters the flight zone.

3. If a handler crosses a grazing animal’s point of balance, located at the shoulder or just behind the eye, the animal will always run in the opposite direction. This innate maneuver can help an animal dodge a fatal attack on its flank.

Handlers can take advantage of this instinctual response by passing across the point of balance to move livestock calmly. Using point-of-balance principles is especially helpful when guiding either a single animal or a group of animals through a single-file or double-file chute. If you want to move an animal forward, never stand at its head and poke it on its rear. This gives the animal conflicting directional signals. When you work inside the flight zone and walk in the opposite direction of the desired movement, the animal will move forward when you cross the point of balance.

4. Grazing animals form bunches when they live in an area with predators. This makes it harder for a predator to single out a lone individual.

5. When predators attack livestock, the herd begins milling and circling. Dominant animals move to the middle of the tight circle, and the weakest ones pace and mill at the outer edges of the circle.

This instinctive, fear-motivated behavior can be an effective defense when predators attack, and is especially effective with large herds. The adult females face outward and attack predators with their horns. The predators eat a few animals on the perimeter of the milling mob, and the rest survive.
Milling cattle are frightened and highly stressed. People handling cattle must avoid triggering this behavior.

Let Animal Instincts Guide Handling Practices 

If you can get inside an animal’s head to think the way it thinks and recognize its response to your own movements, you’ll be able to gather, herd, and turn animals in all kinds of situations.

Take advantage of natural following behavior. Single-file following is an instinctive behavior pattern some grazing animals use when they walk to water or walk in to bed down at night. They’re calm when they string out and aren’t worried about predators. When a cow or pig sees another cow or pig up ahead, he’ll follow. You can use this behavior to help move animals down an alley and through a chute.

Start, stop, and turn animals. With practice, a handler can learn to stop and start an animal by moving a step backward or a step forward. This practice is strongly recommended for people who are first learning low-stress principles. However, it won’t work with completely tame cattle. Such cattle should be led, because they won’t respond to pressure on the flight zone.

Calm cattle have a natural instinct to turn and look where the handler is and, compared with agitated cattle, will be more inclined to keep the handler in view. Cattle that have had experience with a quiet handler who relieves pressure on the flight zone when they’re moving in the desired direction will learn to trust the handler. They’ll stop constantly turning around to see the handler and learn to drive straight.

Use loose bunching behavior to gather animals. To calmly gather livestock from large pastures or pens, walk slowly back and forth on the outer edge of the herd’s collective pressure zone. The herd will be aware of your presence, but you should stay far enough back to avoid penetrating the flight zone. This will prompt the innate protective instinct in the animals’ brains to form a loose bunch. The loose bunch should be formed before you attempt to enter the flight zone to move the group. Premature entry into the flight zone can cause animals to scatter.

When you’re moving a bunched group of cattle to a new location, all the cattle should be quietly heading in the same direction. They shouldn’t be bumping into each other or turning. If they start to do this, they’re becoming agitated and planning to flee. Walk slowly and take great care never to cause the cattle to begin milling or running.

Coaxing cattle to bunch by “stalking” them on the edge of the pressure zone is probably slightly stressful for them until they get used to it. But if you handle them in this quiet manner on a regular basis, they’ll soon recognize that you’re not going to apply too much pressure and invade the flight zone too deeply.

With practice, cattle will learn that your pressure on the outer edge of the collective flight zone will be relieved when they move in the desired direction.

Understand the collective flight zone. The flight and pressure zones for a herd of grazing animals will vary according to the size of the herd, its amount of contact with people, and genetic factors influencing temperament.

By recognizing a herd’s collective flight zone, you can adjust your movements to suit the animals better. For example:

• Animals with genetics that cause them to be flighty will have a larger collective flight zone than animals with calm genetics.
• Herds that have experienced lots of quiet contact with people have a smaller collective flight zone.
• Extremely tame herds with little or no flight zone usually respond best to being led instead of being herded.

Use pressure and release. Enter the outer edges of the collective flight zone to make the animals move, and retreat from the collective flight zone back into the pressure zone to prevent them from moving too quickly. When they’re moving where you want them to go, back off and relieve pressure on the flight zone. To prevent a herd or flock from running, never apply continuous pressure to the collective flight zone.

You won’t want the herd to move any faster than a walk or slow trot, and you should always move among the animals at a normal pace (or emulate that speed if you’re on horseback or in a vehicle). Stay quiet, slow, and steady, and refrain from waving your arms. Don’t become impatient with slow animals. Move the herd at the same pace as the slowest animal.

These principles will be much harder to implement with bison. Compared with cattle, bison have a much stronger tendency to run away when a flight zone is penetrated. They get frightened and highly agitated easily, and they attack more often. Producers should consider training bison to go through chutes and perform other movements with food rewards.

Work the collective point of balance. A grazing animal moving in a group will position itself just behind the point of balance at the shoulder of the animal in front of it. You can make a herd move by working multiple points of balance of a group. A person moving inside the collective flight zone in the opposite direction of desired movement will speed up herd movement. A person moving in the same direction just outside the collective flight zone will slow herd movement.

Stay out of blind spots. Don’t stand behind animals where they’re unable to see you. Standing in the blind spot behind an animal’s rear will hinder movement, often causing the animal to turn and face you instead of moving where you want it to go. Never apply pressure to the flight zone from directly behind the animal in its blind spot.

Apply the gathering and bunching principles. The majority of the animals in the grazing herd must be loosely bunched before you enter the flight zone to move the herd. After the animals that are closest to you turn and face you, you can achieve loose bunching by applying light pressure on the outer edge of the collective pressure zone. If you apply too much pressure before the cattle are bunched, they’ll scatter.

Depending on herd size, experience, genetics, and terrain, coaxing the herd to form a loose bunch will usually take 5 to 20 minutes. The right amount of light pressure just outside the flight zone will make the animals group loosely without making the leaders move forward. You should work inside the pressure zone so the animals are aware you’re there.

Don’t circle too far around the herd. Your pattern of movement should be similar to the movement of a car windshield wiper. Your “arc” should be no more than a quarter-circle, depending on the size of the herd and the size of the space. Confined spaces require smaller arc movement, while big pastures require larger ones.

Some handlers prefer a straight zigzag pattern. In either practice, your movements must be perpendicular to the direction of desired movement, not in a circle around the herd. Making 6 to 20 wide back-and-forth movements on the outer edge of the collective pressure zone will induce the herd to form a loose bunch. On ranches where cattle are spread out on rugged terrain, several loose bunches may form before the entire herd comes together.

Never chase after stragglers or single cows. They’ll eventually seek the safety of the moving herd. Also, resist the urge to press cattle into loose bunching too quickly, because they may scatter. The goal here is to cause only slight anxiety by simulating predator stalking behavior to make the animals want to bunch closely for safety. As you quietly work with your animals, their anxiety will be replaced by trust. The animals will learn that you’ll relieve pressure on the flight zone when they go in the direction you want.

This article was excerpted fromTemple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals, used with permission from Storey Publishing.