Safety first should always be at the forefront when handling cattle! We have always heard and been told to maintain a safety-first motto when farming. Handling cattle, whether it is moving them to different locations, loading into trailers or working them through the chute can be smooth or, as oftentimes, difficult. We have all heard stories about experiences with some of the meanest and perhaps baddest cattle on the planet and some of us even have our own personal favorites. The truth is, just as we have our good days and bad, so do cattle. However, with the understanding of cattle, we can alleviate some of the dangers posed by handling cattle.
There exist numerous motives why cattle react the way they do. Most of this can be traced to their instinctive characteristics. For the handler, this means it is important to understand these characteristics and the stress animals are under when handling. Many accidents occur when animals are highly excited or agitated and are under a tremendous amount of stress. The primary issue can be traced to either fast-paced handling or a lack of understanding on the part of the handler or both.
Unlike humans, cattle have the ability to see in all directions, for 300 degrees. Their eyesight allows them to see everything within their vision range with the exception of what is directly behind them. This is important for any handler as approaching cattle from this blind spot can not only startle cattle but make them take flight or worse, defend themselves. With all of this great vision comes a downside. Though cattle have the ability to have great range in vision, they have difficulty in perceived ground distance when moving. This often results in cattle stopping and lowering their heads as if to gauge the distance in front of them. Another limitation cattle
have with vision is the inability to distinguish shadows from ditches. This can also cause cattle to stop and balk as well as seeing unfamiliar objects. Differing from us, cattle display sensitivity toward light and would rather travel toward that light when compared to either dimly lighted or dark areas as their vision is less comprehensive. When moving cattle into a dark trailer at night or into a dark chute, place lighting where they can see where they are going; preferably something that does not create a glare.
Cattle also possess an instinct we call “herd instinct”. As they are prey animals, they feel more secure when placed in groups. This instinct attracts them to each other and will enable them to move together as a group. When alone, cattle can experience a high volume of stress and can counter with the “flight” or “fight” instinct. This is often seen with bulls being extricated from the herd. When moving bulls or separating any cattle, it is recommended to allow another animal or two to move with the bull until it is at the departure point.
Lastly, it is important to understand the flight zone cattle possess. Similar to us, they have a comfort zone and are not fond of fraying from it, and this zone is different for each animal. Understanding the flight zone consists of knowing the proximity to an animal a handler can become before the animal moves. If entering from the front, the animal will most likely turn and move to the side, away from the handler. If approached from the rear, the animal will move forward but at an angle to which it can see the handler. This zone is determined upon the
previous experiences in dealing with humans. The more docile cattle are, the closer one can get before the animal moves. Wild cattle or cattle with minute human interaction will move before a docile animal will.
Always remember, some animals have a stronger fight element to them and will defend themselves rather than move away from perceived danger.
Jason C. Morris is an ag business specialist with Linn County MU Extension.