For more than 47 years, animal handling expert Temple Grandin has guided the cattle industry through improved corporate facilities, animal welfare awareness and on-farm animal management. Last week at the Spring Forage Conference in Springfield, Missouri, Grandin shared some of her new findings and old insights with producers.

“What I emphasize to students right now is to be a better observer,” Grandin said.

In both animal handling and facility design, critical assessments are key to making improvements.

Awareness & Handling

In any kind of livestock handling, starting with a calm animal can ease the work to be done and help producers maintain their composure. Fortunately, or unfortunately in many cases, emotion transfers freely between cattle and stockmen, making an unruffled approach important.

“The first thing we’ve got to do in cattle handling is calm down,” Grandin said. “If you don’t calm down, you won’t learn anything so we’ve got to calm down first.”

Waving arms or prods and loud vocalizations show intent to animals, Grandin said. Inherently, cattle pick up on those indicators and proceed directly into a fear-fueled flight mode.

Much of Grandin’s work is with stockmen aware of cattle’s flight zone — a circular pressure area in the animal’s field of vision. Most cattle have two zones in their awareness, Grandin said — a flight zone that when entered causes the animal to move away and a zone where they identify a person in their range of vision and are content knowing the person is present.

“The size of the flight zone is determined by the animal’s amount of contact with people and the quality of contact,” Grandin said.

When in the animal’s flight zone, walking past the point of balance near the animal’s shoulder can exert the right amount of pressure to get them moving in the right direction.A key benefit to using the point of balance to slowly move animals through a chute system is eliminating the use of electric prods.

“The thing you have to do with electric prods is just to get them out of your hands,” Grandin said.“They’re not your primary tools for moving animals.”

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin

As a whole, Grandin is not against the use of driving aids, particularly using flags to turn cattle in the catch tub or to drive cattle slowing into pens. Her key areas of focus are on the movement of driving aids and making sure they are used appropriately.

“One of the big mistakes I still see people making is standing at the head of the animal, taking a paddle and poking it on the butt,” Grandin said. “Don’t do that.”

In some situations, even electric prods have a role, Grandin said.

“There’s a few places you still need hotshots — for downed animals in trailers at a truck stop, when a down animal is choking in the head gate, and occasionally you get an animal that just decides it is not going to go in the squeeze chute.”

Cattle unwilling to enter the alley and unwilling to enter the actual squeeze chute are two separate problems on working days. Cattle unwilling to enter the alley may have a simple solution, attributed to better handling.

“One of the big mistakes that everyone makes is bringing too many cattle up at one time,” Grandin said. “If you bring up small groups, it is a nice thing you can do that will greatly improve your handling.”

Grandin said filling the crowd pen half full and allowing a little space to build up at the back of the alley to encourage following behavior before pushing more cattle forward can alleviate a lot of stress related to cattle turning around in the crowd pen.

While working smaller groups of cattle definitely requires more walking on the part of the producer, it can greatly reduce time and stress related to cattle turning around or fighting in the crowd pen.

“If you do the simple things in cattle handling — in terms of improving productivity and improving safety — you’ll be about 80 percent of the way there,” Grandin said.

Cattle today have a very different temperament than the cattle Grandin began working with in the early stages of her career four decades ago. Those changes are thanks, in part, to genetic selection for gentler animals.

“Where you will see genetic difference in behavior is when you suddenly expose the animal to a novelty,” Grandin said. “You can have cattle that have been handled with the very best handling, but when something sudden happens — like a hot air balloon landing in the pasture — that’s where you will see the genetics.”

Facilities

The easiest way to improve an existing cattle handling facility with no budget is to listen to the cattle and remove any diversions they find throughout the system, Grandin said.

“If an animal looks right at a distraction and you let them look at it, the animal will eventually walk by it,” Grandin said. “They will show you stuff in the facility that bothers them by looking right at it.”

If the cattle aren’t talking quite loud enough, Grandin said there are a few things that can be eliminated in any facility to make handling smoother, including cars in view, hanging chains, paper towels hanging down, coats hung on the fences or too many back stop gates. Facilities that face into the sun, have light spots or an absence of light can also trip up a calm cow.

“I call it a dark movie theater effect where you have a sunny day outside but inside the handling facility is dark, so the cattle don’t want to go in there while their eyes are adjusting,” Grandin said. “One of the simplest things to do about this is to open up a door on the other side so the cattle can see light through on the other side.”

In most cases, it’s easier to remove distractions than to build a different working facility, Grandin said. A known proponent of closed-side systems, Grandin said systems with open sides or an exterior closed side can all work well as long cattle handling principles aren’t forgotten.

“If you have a facility with open sides, remember that the flight zone comes out like a force field,” Grandin said. “You’ve got to stay away from it until it is time to move the cattle.”

Solid sides make the most difference along the outer perimeter, especially to remove distractions like parked cars or other cattle. At the squeeze chute where cattle are in close contact with the chute operator, solid sides can also make a change.

“Up at the squeeze chute, you have to stand close to the animals and that’s one place where solid sides make a big difference,” Grandin said. “Put up a piece of cardboard to block the back half of the squeeze chute.”

Chute design and length is also a key aspect of well-working handling facilities.

“I want to make my single file chute long enough so I can get some following behavior — probably four or five cows long,” Grandin said. “What you want to do is wait until there is space in the single file and then when you bring cattle up into your crowd pen, they just keep on going and enter the chute.”

One mistake facility designers typically make for chutes is bending them too sharp where they join the crowd pen, Grandin said.

In the same vein, crowd pen radius should not exceed 12 feet with 10 to 12 feet being optimal. Before going out and building the perfect facility, Grandin encouraged producers to look for fixes to existing problems through handling and to evaluate the needs of their operations.

“You get into something that is simple and economical but requires more skill versus something a little more expensive but it’s easier for unskilled people to use,” Grandin said. “Then, you are investing a little bit more in the equipment.”

Stockmanship doesn’t get enough credit, in Grandin’s opinion, because quality managers can’t be automated and they will never be unnecessary in livestock production.

“When I first started out, I thought I could fix everything with facilities,” Grandin said. “The thing is people want the magical new thing more than they want the magic.”

Good stockman can slip back into bad habits slowly without realizing it in a phenomenon Grandin refers to as “bad becoming normal.” She suggested self-evaluating handling practices every so often and always being willing to learn something new.

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