January 25, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry - cattle behaviour & handling

Cattle, farming, husbandry, behaviour, senses, communication, housing cattle, farm raceways, training cattle to lead, droving on highway

By Dr Clive Dalton

Stock handlers at sale yards are always at risk with strange cattle.
Experience is their protector

Cattle – what are they?
  • This is not a silly question as thinking about it is a good approach to realise what we expect from cattle – and how at times we may be totally unreasonable.
  • Cattle are large ruminants that digest fibrous feed, but cannot graze as close to the ground as sheep.
  • Cattle sweep grass into their mouths with their long tongues before tearing it off with their bottom teeth against a top hard dental pad before swallowing it for digestion in the rumen.
  • They are a herding species with a clearly developed social hierarchy but when disturbed, they don’t gather together like sheep.
  • Cattle are a “lying-out” species where calves don’t follow their dams all the time like lambs and suckle at frequent intervals.
  • In the early weeks of life cows leave their calves in crèches and go back to suckle them 2-3 times a day.

More about ruminants
  • Ruminants digest fibrous feed in their 3 fore-stomachs (rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum).
  • The abomasum is the true gastric stomach.
  • Digestion of fibre produces mainly carbon dioxide and methane which is released by belching.
  • If this mechanism fails and gas builds up, the cattle can die with bloat. Being a ruminant dictates their entire behaviour.

What do cattle do all day?

Cattle divide their day into periods of:
  • Grazing – taking in feed using their prehensile (grasping) tongue and bottom teeth. Feed goes into the rumen via the abomasum (honey comb bag) where heavy objects collect like medicinal boluses and bits of wire.
  • High-yielding dairy cows have to spend at least 8-10 hours/day grazing to meet their nutritional needs. Beef cattle have much less pressure and stress to live with.
  • Chewing. The feed is chewed, formed into a ball (bolus) with saliva and swallowed. An adult cow produces about 100 Litres of saliva each day. A dairy cow makes 30,000 to 40,000 grazing bites/day.
  • Rumination. Here feed is given time to ferment in the large rumen by micro-organisms and the cow does this both standing and lying down.
  • Regurgitation. Here the grass bolus in the rumen is belched up again for a second chewing (mastication) of around 300 chews/bolus.
  • The feed is re-swallowed back into the omasum which is like the leaves in a book for final grinding. It then passes into the abomasum for gastric digestion.
  • Idling. The cow stands still appearing to do nothing but it’s a time of active rumen fermentation.
  • Resting – long periods of lying down (ruminating) and short periods of sleep.
  • Drinking. This may require quite a lot of time in walking to a water source. a mature cow in milk drinks about 70 Litres of water each day.

Cattle senses

  • The position of the cow’s eyes means it has a narrow 25-50° binocular vision while looking ahead, but a very wide almost 360° peripheral vision looking around its sides.
  • Cattle are very concerned to check the narrow blind spot at their rear by regular head movements and changing their body position when grazing.
  • A cow’s eyes are designed to see down rather than up and when alarmed they will raise the head to investigate.
  • Cattle can recognise different people from their shape and colour of clothing although they have limited colour vision.
  • They are aware of numbers and regularly associate more than one person with pain or stress of injections or forced handling when extra humans appear.
Point of balance
  • Cattle have an imaginary “point of balance” just behind the shoulder and you can use this to get them to move.
  • If you move ahead of this point, the beast will move back, and if you move behind it then it will move forward.
  • They also have a point of balance in the centre of their head so if you move to the right of it, the beast will move to the left, and vice versa.

  • Cattle are sensitive to high frequency sounds which people cannot hear, and these can increase arousal, while low tones are more relaxing.
  • Music is regularly used in milking parlours to provide cows with a familiar background noise to create a sense of normality.
  • They easily adapt to the full range of music from hard rock to hymns and from low volume to head-splitting.

  • Cattle have a better sense of smell than people.
  • The smell of blood (from both cattle and sheep) can cause great panic and has been seen when cattle passed paddocks treated with blood and bone fertiliser.
  • For some unknown reason, this panic reaction was not consistent and has not yet been explained.

  • Cattle have a very sensitive skin and can flick flies off from localised areas.
  • Cows respond well to touch and use it as an important form of communication among each other.
  • Mutual grooming is important in cattle, especially in mature animals, and dams lick and groom their calves right up to weaning. T
  • ouch is important for handlers to warn cows where the humans are – e.g. when milking.

  • Adult cattle sleep very little and in very short spells.
  • The sleeping pose is all four legs tucked under and head turned to face the rear.
  • Cattle must be well settled and comfortable before they’ll sleep.
  • If animals are disturbed at night, they will sleep more during the day.
  • Sleep and rest have big implications for the design of cubicles, loafing areas and feed pads. If stock cannot rest when they desire, they become very tired, get sore feet and production and health are affected.
  • Cattle remember single events for a considerable time – certainly for weeks and often even for months.
  • Humans ignore this at their peril.
  • One really bad experience with a single human will put cattle off all people for a considerable time.
  • They can often remember an individual human, mainly from visual outline and dress such as the vet in green overalls.
  • Smokers who gave regular monthly injections in a programme made cows very agitated when any other smoker arrived at milking time.
  • It can take a long time to restore a positive human/animal bond. Herd managers report that it can take a whole year to change the behaviour of cows who have been badly managed.

Cattle Communication
  • Cattle use a range of body signals to communicate with each other and their eyes have a key role.
  • They use “eyes down” to show submission, and “eyes up” to show confidence. Cows on heat use mounting behaviour to signal to other cows and the bull.
  • The cow’s tail is important too – when held tight down to show a relaxed mood, half up to show alertness and held high to show panic.
  • A stressed cow or bull will usually defaecate profusely too with tail up.

They use at least 5 signals with their heads:

  • Normal relaxed position.
  • Friendly approach before grooming by other cow.
  • Threat approach – watching you with one eye and snorting.
  • Submissive avoidance – pretending not to look.
  • Withdrawal from conflict and head toss with snort.
  • Cattle raise the tail in play or panic and the tail also slightly raised in heat and mild panic.

Housing cattle
Some farmers are now covering their feed pads so the animals are effectively housed in open air structures that provide shade and shelter. The table below gives some space requirements.

Farm raceways and lameness
  • The farm raceway on dairy farms has been identified as a major cause of lameness.
  • Unstressed cows walk with their heads straight out in front watching where they are going.
  • A cow’s back feet generally hit the same spots where their front feet have landed so they can adjust their weight and feet if they step on sharp stones.
  • When cows are pushed by impatient staff, motorbikes or biting dogs, they have to move with heads up and don’t see where they are going. Lameness, pain and suffering will result along with lost production.
  • The surface of the race must be free from sharp stones and have sufficient camber to allow good drainage of surface water. A good test is to see if you can walk along it in bare feet. If you can, then it’s OK for the cows!
  • The race should be wide enough to suit herd size. The table below gives some recommended widths:

Herd size and width of race.

Training cattle to lead
  • This is a very hard and dangerous exercise with large mature animals such as cows and bulls, and it’s best done when they are calves.
  • Put a halter on the calf and tie it up for short periods (e.g. 30 minutes) twice a day, and feed the calf where it is tied.
  • Groom and handle it when tied up.
  • Then move the feed away some distance and lead the calf to the feed.
  • Then start to lead it around without feed – giving it a gentle push from behind as well as some light pressure on the lead. Get someone to help do the pushing.
  • Teaching mature stock to lead is not easy as they are so strong.
  • Use the tie up technique (30 minute spells) for 2-3 periods each day for a week, grooming and massaging at the same time. Offer some feed too while grooming.
  • Then try leading over short distances with help from an assistant pushing the animal from behind when it baulks. Don’t let it get away on you or get its head down, or it will remember its success and do it again. Wear safety boots with plenty of grip.
  • To get animals used to halters and restraint, some stockpersons tie two animals of similar weights together with two collars joined by a 500mm chain including a swivel, so they get used to their heads being directed.
  • Try this trick with animals of different weight so the large one teaches the lighter one to lead.
  • Some stud breeders have used a donkey to teach show cattle to lead. The donkey and cattle beast are tied together with a short chain and swivel for a few weeks. But you must keep a regular check on them and many animal welfarists would not be too happy – especially donkey breeders.
  • If you do have to train a mature beast, you’ll needs lots of strong helpers and plenty of time. Dragging it on a halter behind a tractor is not effective and is very dangerous for all concerned.

Droving cattle on the highway
  • With today’s traffic and motorists’ attitudes to livestock on the highway, this is a high risk business that should be avoided wherever possible.
  • Under the NZ Transport Act 1962 and the Local Government Act 2002, local authorities are increasingly brining in Stock Droving and Crossing bylaws that will greatly restrict the movement of stock on a highway and certainly phase out stock crossings in favour of underpasses for dairy herds.
  • This is being driven by road safety issues but urban dwellers don’t like getting dung on their cars as they have heard about salmonella and campylobacter present in animal faeces.
  • To avoid any legal problems in case of accidents or confrontations with motorists, you must be able to show that you have taken all due care and not deliberately placed motorists in danger. Be aware of this, as you may have to prove it in court, so make sure you provide large safety margins.
  • If you are forced to move cattle on the road, first check with the local authorities (district and regional councils) because their regulations vary in regard to the need for permits.
  • You may need to give 10 days notice of your droving plans and also submit a “traffic management plan” and get a permit. This may take some time to sort out and may cost money.
  • Local government bodies are concerned about damage to the highway and the verges, and large fines can be faced for breaching bylaws.
  • Droving within townships and on certain roads is prohibited and established stock routes must be used when designated.
  • If you have to cross a railway, you must inform the railway authority.
  • Stock movements are not allowed on the road during the hours of darkness or when visibility is less than 100m.
  • Don’t attempt to drive stock too far. For dry dairy cows, 10 - 12 km/day on level going is far enough. If there are hills then you may have to walk them less. Don’t plan to drive young stock any more than 12km/day.
  • Remember that when stock first get on the road they will take off at a trot and this can be the most dangerous time until they steady down.
  • When they settle down, let them proceed at a steady amble or walk to avoid excess feet wear on the abrasive road surface.
  • Stock need rest, feed and water at the end of each day’s journey. This will have to be arranged in advance.
  • Have plenty of support with people well ahead and well behind with large notices and flashing orange lights to warn traffic. Make sure staff wear reflective safety jerkins and crash hats if they are on bikes or ATVs.
  • Be especially careful with the working dogs that move quickly and often get run over as they dart around below windscreen view. Make them a reflective jacket!
  • Expect motorists to have little knowledge of how to drive through a mob of stock so you will have to be very clear in your directions to help them.
  • Do not be tempted to damage a motorist’s vehicle in any way through frustration as experience shows that you’ll generally lose the court case!
  • Have vehicle support for any animals that go lame and a first aid kit handy for both animals and humans.

Cattle transport – general points
  • Most concern is over the transport of pregnant and milking cows and especially during a sea voyage. See the Transport of Livestock Code and the Dairy Cow code of welfare for full details.
  • The following cattle should be penned separately: young calves, a cow with calf at foot, adult stock bulls, cattle of differing size, cattle with horns from polled stock, and cows at advanced pregnancy.

OSH requirements
  • Your cattle yards are “a place of work” and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) legislation applies to everything that goes on in them.
  • The law says that the owner, lessee, sub-lessee, occupier and anyone in the vicinity must not be harmed by any hazard in the work place.
  • So under OSH regulations you are required to go around the yards (and the farm) and first, IDENTIFY all the hazards, then secondly to ELIMINATE them. If you cannot eliminate them then you are required to take the third option and ISOLATE them.
  • A good example is an offal hole which is a hazard that you cannot eliminate but you can isolate with an effective cover and fence.
  • The key point is that if anyone has an “accident” which is generally interpreted by farmers as needing medical treatment or time in hospital, then the person in charge of operations at the time could be liable if hazards were found that had not be identified and dealt with.
  • So you have to be aware of risks to people who visit your yards such as truck operators, veterinarians or AI technicians.
  • Check with your nearest OSH office of the Labour Department for full information. We have got to take this seriously from now on, as we kill and maim too many people every day on farms and court proceedings can be very costly.

Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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