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Keys to low-stress handling of livestock - industry expert gives tips at Cottonwood Station

At last week's South Dakota State University's Field Day at the Cottonwood Research Station near Philip, Dr. Tom Noffsinger gave a morning lecture and afternoon demonstration on low-stress handling of livestock.

Noffsinger spent three years learning low-stress animal handling techniques from Bud Williams, who can herd reindeer on foot so Eskimos can harvest their antlers.

Noffsinger began the Cottonwood lecture by stating the health and performance levels of cattle herds have to do with the interaction between the cattle and people.

According to Noffsinger, feedlots have an increased morbidity rate of 40 percent over the last 10 years despite improvements in antibiotics. "Our handling of cattle does not allow accurate diagnosis of health," says Noffsinger in answer to the increase in death loss. Cattle have key instincts that we need to remember when handling them.

•Cattle are prey animals. They will hide signs of illness for as long as they can to conceal weakness. "We must convince cattle that we are not predators even though we are," says Noffsinger. "Prey animals understand predator behavior."

•Herd mentality. Cattle find safety in numbers. The timid are located in back of the moving herd with the "flighty" animals in front. Cattle should be guided from the front or push them at an angle.

•Fight or flight. Confinements and dogs are threatening to cattle. Noffsinger advises using dogs to herd cattle in a pasture, but not when working cattle in confined areas. "Cattle are not thinking IF they will get bit, but WHEN they will get bit," says Noffsinger.

•Cattlemen should be aware of their facility structure and layout. Cattle have horizontal pupils limiting their upward vision. When a cow's head is down to graze she can see 360 degrees. When her head is up she sees only 275 degrees. Noffsinger says that for years we have forced cattle to perform in visually challenging and unfamiliar worlds.

•Loud noises, shouting and whistling are unsettling to cattle.

•Don't circle cattle. That is a predatory characteristic. Use straight lines.

If cattle are properly approach-ed and their respect is won, they will go anywhere and the un-healthy animals will present themselves because they don't feel threatened. With the above items in mind, Noffsinger says producers can teach cattle to "do amazing things."

Initial Training

Training begins at first contact - calving time. Individuals need to pay more attention to the impressionable calf during this time than to the mother. Noffsinger says producers often worry about the mother cow, but should handle the calf properly. "Instead of catching the calf during tagging, you should be thinking about the calf coming to you," says Noffsinger.

To reduce problems of scours, cattlemen usually pair-out their cow/calf pairs from the heavies. Noffsinger suggests leaving the cow/calf pairs and moving the heavies to clean pastures. Calves become multipliers of organisms at seven to 10 days old. Transferring the heavies onto clean pasture reduces the pathogen exposure to newborns.

Leaving the cow/calf pairs also encourages bonding. Successful calving and pairing results in a passive transfer of calf immunity. "If a calf is scared he will digest the colostrum provided, rather than absorbing it," says Noffsinger.

Producers should practice "weaning" at branding time. If done correctly, handling the calves in the facility they may also be weaned in is a great benefit.

One goal is to teach cattle to drive straight. Distance, position, angle and speed come into play when herding and sorting. Walking parallel to the cattle will cause them to slow down. Walking against them will cause them to speed up. Pressuring the back of the herd encourages turning.

When running cattle into a chute for vaccinations, do not place them in a tub more than half full or force them into a funnel. Skill levels of those working cattle should help place each individual into a job which allows for the safe, easy handling of cattle.

"The person bringing up the cattle and filling the chute should be your best cattle handler," says Noffsinger. "Anyone can run a chute."

"Don't build funnels. Cattle need to see where they are going. Open chutes are better than solid panels. Cattle don't fear shadows and they don't naturally circle. Cattle want to see what is pressuring them, so they turn," says Noffsinger.

Acclimating to new homes

Cattle circling and bawling during weaning or after transportation should be stopped. Noffsinger said producers should use settling techniques and stop the panicked movements of the cattle.

•Identify the irritator. Which animal is it that keeps the whole pen moving?

•Walk with the movement of the cattle to slow them down.

•Let fence corners naturally stop the movement of the cattle.

•Fight the need to push the cattle to the bunk or water.

Exercising the cattle is important. By allowing the cattle to "play" outside of their pen freely for a moment in an alley way promotes health through clearing airways, movement for freshly castrated animals and easier identification of ill animals.

"Some animals need antibiotics and some animals need you," summarized Noffsinger on the concept of low-stressing handling.