Cattle Handling:
Some of What You Need to Know.

Table of Contents

Because high-stress cattle handling can lead to inefficiency, decreased quality, and increased safety risks—here’s what to do.

by Mark Deesing, Cattle Behavior Consulting

Because high-stress cattle handling can lead to inefficiency, decreased quality, and increased safety risks—here’s what to do.

by Mark Deesing, Cattle Behavior Consulting

The Art of Humane Cattle Handling

Consider all the factors of safe and humane cattle handling.

Humane cattle handling is both ethical and practical. Helping your animals experience minimum stress throughout their lives leads to benefits  that include:

  • Increased weight gain through better feed conversion
  • Improved reproduction
  • Reduced sickness
  • Reduced injuries
  • An overall better quality of life for the animals and people

Subjecting cattle to new surroundings, separating herd mates, or loud and aggressive handlers can cause even the calmest of animals to become difficult to handle. Excited or frightened animals are more likely to cause injury to themselves and others.

Handling animals with low-stress methods that promote good welfare means taking a few factors into consideration: 

  • Genetics and breed differences
  • Individual Differences
  • Previous experience
  • Age
  • The cattle pens and corral conditions

Handling facility and corral designs play a big role in safe cattle handling, as does the attitude of people handling the cattle.  Even in old, broken-down corrals, low-stress cattle handling is still possible if the animals have calm handlers and good previous experiences. Alternatively, a state-of-the-art cattle husbandry system does not guarantee a low stress response from the cattle. Poor cattle handling can happen in any facility. It’s also important to understand that some cattle have been so stressed by bad handling that improving their behavior with good handling is impossible in any circumstance.

The way to master the art of humane cattle handling requires understanding the complex interplay between all these factors. There is no “one way” to handle cattle. Every animal is different and every experience different. Being flexible and adjusting how you approach each situation with cattle is the key.

It’s not all set in stone.

Angus Cattle

Genetic influence on temperament is important to understand. A key details in genetics is in breed differences;  European Continental cattle breeds—such as Angus and Hereford—are generally calmer and easier to handle compared to cattle breeds with Zebu or Brahman genetics. The temperament difference between breeds is genetic,  involved in the regulation of things like nervous system reactivity and flightyness.

Although considerable differences exist in temperament between breeds, there are also individual differences within breeds. For example, Angus cattle are generally considered calm, but some individuals have a fearful, flighty temperament. It’s like some children are shy. However, as with any trait, the extremes are fewer than the majority. For example, if you take ten young Angus bulls, one or two will be shy and fearful, and one or two will be friendly and fearless. The remaining bulls represent the majority, somewhere in-between.

Brahman Beef cattle

Cattle with Brahman genetics are generally considered more temperamental than English Continental breeds, but just like the 10 Angus bulls, there are individual differences in Brahman cattle and cross cattle breeds. The differences are in degree, not in kind. The fearful individuals are usually more fearful, and the friendly are friendlier. Even with a naturally flighty temperament, I’ve seen Brahman cattle in South America so gentle children can lead them down noisy streets with no more than a string around the animal’s neck.

 Genetics influences aren’t set in stone, but they serve as a predisposition for certain traits within a breed. Understanding these differences is the first step in adjusting how you approach cattle of any breed, or of any temperament.

Nature and Nurture

The Role of Genetics, Environment, and Upbringing in Cattle Behavior & Temperament

Nature: Genetics in Cattle Behavior & Temperament

Nurture: Environment & Upbringing in Cattle Behavior & Temperament

First experiences are critical in forming future responses.

Environment and upbringing play a significant part in how cattle behave during handling. It’s about a 50/50 split. Half nature, half nurture.  For example, the gentle Brahman in  South America cattle led around by a string were raised in close contact with people throughout their lives. It’s the same with cattle all over Asia with Zebu genetics. Their natural flight zone—the distance one can get to the animal before they shy away—is decreased by experience. The cattle’s true nature is not  changed, just masked by experience. If you completely expose these animals to something novel and sudden, their natural flightiness will show.

The influence of experience can also have the opposite effect. Cattle with a genetically calm temperament can become fearful, and their flight zone increased after a bad experience during handling. This is especially true if the experience involves pain. The memory is lasting. An example is breaking off a horn in a squeeze chute. Breaking a horn causes great pain and can make the animal fearful of the squeeze chute, and the people around when the horn was broke.

Good or bad experiences can affect how temperament develops as well. On the ranch,  it’s important to handle newborn calves  for identification, but when calves struggle and the cow gets upset, this first experience  can escalate into a scary and dangerous situation for everyone. Unfortunately, this typifies the “first experience” in many cattle and individual differences in temperament determine how these experiences are perceived. For the calves with a naturally fearful temperament at birth,  the experience is far worse compared to the calm by nature calf. 

The next experience for most calves on the ranch is at three months and involves ear tagging , vaccinations, castrating, and branding. For these procedures, the calves are handled either manually or with mechanical restraint.

Calf Branding
cattle branding

Which is worse? Hot-iron branding and freeze-branding are both known to be painful, but no scientific consensus exists between which is more stressful. In either case, the stress of separation from the cow creates a strong fear memory that may be worse than restrain. It’s no wonder so many cattle are difficult to handle! The first two experiences with people are frightening—and when branding or castrating, painful as well. 

Calves with a naturally fearful temperament may form a fear memory of this one experience that can last a lifetime. Some people tend to rationalize these procedures and downplay their significance on the mistaken beliefs that the calves’ resistance is caused by stubbornness, and they don’t feel pain like we do.

That is not correct. Cattle are a prey-species animal whose natural tendency is to flee from any real or perceived danger. Fear is the primary motivation. Also, when injured or sick, they have an instinct to hide their pain and vulnerability. Only when flight is prevented do cattle get stubborn and fight. But make no mistake, in most cases, the fight is fear motivated. They fight when they can’t flee.

Here’s a confusing point; people also provide for calves the one thing they really like—sweets and sweet feeds. Once they understand where the sweets come from, they begin to approach people for the treats. The motivation for the sweets overrides the fear motivation.  But for many cattle, it’s difficult to forget the previous bad experiences. When this happens you’ll see a conflict of emotion occur.  Calves approach people for the treats, but when someone reaches out to touch them, they withdraw.  

Horses do the same thing. Over time, calves with a naturally low level of fearfulness appear to forget the negative experiences of the past; they actively seek and enjoy handling, scratching, and other attention. It’s all about motivation. The motivation for food is strong in naturally low-fear calves.

A lesson to remember when practicing low stress handling. It’s easier to get cattle to follow a bucket of treats

Two Lessons to Remember

There are two important lessons in learning the art of humane cattle handling:

  1. Genetic differences in temperament and emotionality are real, dynamic, and as important to understanding cattle behavior as science is to knowledge. Before any calf is handled for the first time, stop, step back, and ask yourself;  Is this calf fearful or calm or somewhere in-between?
    One way to determine the tempermental nature of the calf is to observe the cow. The mother’s behavior is a useful starting place. A fearful cow usually indicates a fearful calf. Science is clear on this, temperament is highly heritable.
  1. It’s also important to remember the profound impact and effect the first experience has on subsequent behavior. Make first experiences as good as possible, when practical, by using humane cattle handling equipment and methods. The extra time spent on improving your husbandry system may pay dividends later as age and handling experience is increased. Stress compounds over time, but good feelings compound over time too.

Curved Cattle Pen and Corral Principles

Safe and Humane Cattle Handling Standards to Increase Efficiency and Decrease Safety Risks.

compact cattle handling facility at Waseda Farms

The First Experience in the Cattle Pen

The first experiences in new cattle pens can influence how cattle behave the next time through. Make the first experience positive by walking cattle through the pens without stopping in the squeeze chute.

One experience is usually enough for most cattle; however, some individuals may require repeated careful handling for some time. For their safety and yours, it’s important to identify which cattle are more temperamental and in need of long-term conditioning to be more manageable.

Deep Grooved Concrete Floors

The most common problem in facilities is a slippery concrete floor. Slippery floors cause stress.  The feeling as if you’re about to fall can cause fear, and that’s especially true in cattle, whose prey instincts urge them stay on their feet.

When concrete is not deep grooved, cattle wear down small grooves or rough broom fined concrete over time, causing the floor to become slippery. When done correctly, deep grooved concrete floors can last 30 years or more, where a rough broom finish on new concrete lasts only about 6 months.  The best areas for non-slip grooved concrete floors is where cattle experience the most stress, including:

  • Sorting alleys or lanes leading to the crowd pen
  • Crowd pen
  • Single file chute
  • The exit area from the squeeze chute
  • Loading chutes and ramps

Preventing falls is one of the best things you can do to improve your cattle husbandry system.  Falling on concrete can cause serious injuries.  A bruised muscle heals over time, but the damaged muscle fibers affect meat quality, and recovery time means a loss of productivity. The injuries cattle sustain falling on concrete would be like the injuries we sustain after a minor car wreck.

curved pen layout

Curved Pen Fence

When moving cattle down a sorting alley or from pasture to the pens, they don’t know where they’re going and may turn around.  They would rather go back where they came from. They know it’s safe where they were.

A curved pen layout solves this problem.

In the curved pen layout, cattle enter the solid fence area at the top and move to the first curve. Rounding the first curve creates an illusion of going back where they were.

Curves also act as a buffer against injuries caused by sharp corners and posts as cattle crowd into the high-density area.

As they round the corner into the crowding pen, they look up a 30° funnel into the single file chute racing around in a gentle arch to the squeeze chute.

The curved pen layout creates a fluid flow that reduces anxiety and improves cattle welfare. 

Solid Sided Fence

Cattle cannot be afraid of what they cannot see. When you block their vision with solid sides, they can’t see the squeeze chute or the people around it as they move through the curves. The fence height can be 5 feet (60″) to as high as 7 feet 6 inches (7’6″) for bison.

a slide gate entrance

A slide gate at the entrance to the single-file chute closes when the chute is full of cattle. A back stop gate lowers to prevent backing, and is placed two cattle-body lengths behind the squeeze chute.

The raised concrete platform on the inside radius of the single-file chute and the catwalk around the crowd pen is 42 inches down from the top of the fence. The 42″ allows most people to reach over and coax an animal forward.

 The platform allows someone to move away from the fence when the cattle are waiting. The zone is the distance you can approach an animal before it moves away. Flight zone distance is genetic, but it’s also influenced by previous experience.Cattle remain calm when people move in and out of the flight zone as they move forward through the system.

Outside the Pens

Humane handling does not begin and end with a good set of cattle pens like those shown in these images. Understanding how curved cattle pens work is important, and there are other factors to consider.

Safe and humane cattle handling in the pens begins with how the cattle are handled outside the pens. Stress is cumulative, which means it increases in degrees.  For instance, when cattle are chased and run before getting into the pens, the stress may lead to panic when they get to the squeeze chute.  Keeping cattle calm outside the pens is just as important as keeping them calm inside the pens. Cattle should walk into and out of the pens. Cattle should walk out of the squeeze chute. If cattle run at any time during handling, stress will prevent calm handling. If cattle do become excited and run before they get to the pens, a 45 minute cooling down period is recommended.

You can help the cattle stay calm while moving from the holding to working pens by placing one person ahead and one person behind the group. Controlling movement between the pens controls stress.

The stress of restraint in the squeeze chute is unavoidable, but the accumulated stress experienced before they reach the squeeze chute is not. Elevated stress levels before reaching the squeeze chute magnifies the stress during restraint. The stress hormone response to the first is mild, but the second is greater by degree, depending on the cumulative stress from before the restraint. For us, it would be the difference between narrowly avoiding a car accident and actually having an accident. The stress of restraint is magnified by the previous stress accumulated before restraint.

The principles outlined here can reduce stress and make humane handling not only possible but more efficient and profitable. Cattle pens not designed or built the way discussed here should start placing more emphasis on preventing stress before the cattle enter the pen systems. As discussed earlier, many factors play a role in cattle behavior.  Genetics, early experience on the farm, and the experiences in other cattle pens all contribute to individual temperament. These influences are compounded by age. Understanding these influences and adapting cattle handling on the individual and group level is a big part of the art of humane cattle handling.

Handler Attitude and Beliefs

If you believe cattle are naturally stubborn and aggressive, your belief may be reflected in your attitude, manner, and actions. Cattle are naturally good at reading the subtle social signals we communicate through our voice, posture, and gait (walk). Loud voices, upright and forward posture, and fast walking appear threatening; they make cattle move faster, creating a state of anxiety.

Cattle are exceptional at reading these signals, no matter how subtle. Low-stress handling is easy when you do the following:

  • Move small groups at a time
  • Use flight-zone and point-of-balance principles
  • Do not overload the alleys, pens, or crowd pen
  • Eliminate electric prods, and use plastic paddles or flag sticks as driving aids
  • Remove distractions that make animals balk
  • Do not yell at or chase cattle

Using these principles—along with understanding the complex interaction between genetics, early experience, cattle pen design and construction—is how you master the art of humane handling.

Start Planning Your Humane Husbandry System

Enhance efficiency, increase gains, and improve meat quality with low-stress cattle handling.

Drawings start at $20

Resources and Additional Information

More research to help develop a humane, efficient, and profitable cattle handling system.

The First Experience in the Cattle Pen

Behavior Genetics is the science devoted to understanding how genetic forces and environmental factors interact in behavior. At Colorado State University, we studied hair whorls on cattle and horses and the relationship with temperament. The purpose of this work was to better understand individual differences in temperament measured by the position of the hair whorl on the scalp.

Genetically based individual differences in temperament can be predicted by the position of the whorl on the scalp. This has been validated by other researchers around the world.

Scholarly Articles

Cattle with hair whorl patterns above the eyes are more behaviorally agitated during restraint (1995) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, volume 46 (1995) pages 117 – 123 T. Grandin, M.J. Deesing, J.J. Struthers and A.M. Swinker

The relationship between facial hair whorls and milking parlor side preferences. (1994) Journal of Animal Science, volume 72 Supplement 1 page 207 M.Tanner, T.Grandin, M.Cattell, M.Deesing

Individual differences in calf defense patterns in Red Angus beef cows (2012) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, volume 139 pages 203- 208. Cornelia Flörcke, Terry E.Engle, Temple Grandin, Mark J.Deesing.

Bos Indicus-Cross Feedlot Cattle with Excitable Temperaments have Tough Meat and a Higher Incidence of Borderline Dark Cutters  (1997) B. D. Voisinet, T. Grandin, S. F. O’Connor, J. D. Tatuma & M. J. Deesing, Meat Science, Volume 46:4, 367-377.

Hair whorl patterns on the bovine forehead may be related to breeding soundness measures  (2004) Melissa G MeolaTemple GrandinPatrick Burns, Mark Deesing Journal of Theriogenology,10. 021

Behavioral Laterality and Facial Hair Whorls in Horses (2016) Shivley, Temple Grandin, Mark Deesing, Journal of Equine Veterinary Medicine, V-44, 62-66

Heritability estimates of the position and number of facial hair whorls in Thoroughbred horses (2019) Tamu Yokomori, Teruaki Tozaki, Hiroshi Mita, Takeshi Miyake, Hironaga Kakoi, Yuki Kobayashi, Kanichi Kusano & Takuya Itou , BMC Research Notes 12, Article Number 346

Books

Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals
Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals
Academic Press 1997 1st Edition
Edited by: Temple Grandin

Chapters relevant to this review:
  • Chapter 1.
    Behavioral Genetics and Animal Science
    T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing
  • Chapter 4.
    Genetics and Behavior during Handling, Restraint, and Herding T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing
  • Chapter 7.
    Genetic Effects on Horse Behavior
    J.C. Heird and M.J. Deesing
  • Chapter 11.
    Genetics and Animal Welfare
    T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing
Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals
Elsevier 2014
2nd Edition
Edited by: Temple Grandin & Mark Deesing

Chapters relevant to this review:
  • Chapter 1.
    Behavioral Genetics and Animal Science
    T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing
  • Chapter 4.
    Genetics and Behavior during Handling, Restraint, and Herding
    T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing
  • Chapter 7.
    Genetic Effects on Horse Behavior
    J.C. Heird and M.J. Deesing
  • Chapter 11.
    Genetics and Animal Welfare
    T. Grandin and M.J. Deesing
Humane Livestock Handling Book
Humane Livestock Handling
Storey Publishing 2008
by Temple Grandlin, with Mark Deesing

This book shows how humane handling can improve the health and productivity of animals on the farm. From the importance of understanding livestock behavior, Temple Grandin and Mark Deesing show you how to have a better working relationship with your animals. Included are dozens of detailed construction and design plans for cattle pens large and small, and dozens of low-stress methods for moving your cattle on pastures, padlocks, and feedlot pens. This step-by-step guide has everything you need to know to make a comfortable place for happy, healthy livestock.

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Start Planning Your Humane Husbandry System

Enhance efficiency, increase gains, and improve meat quality with low-stress cattle handling.

Drawings start at $20