Choosing equipment to reduce stress in cattle
The benefits of reducing stress on cattle have been well documented and touted by a variety of sources. Keeping cattle calm and comfortable reduces bruising and injury, dark cutters, injury to handlers, damage to equipment, and more. Low-stress cattle can boast higher weight gains, better feed efficiency, and better health.
The question of “how to reduce stress” has many answers, but one retort comes up more often than others: management practices. Training of personnel and the timing of key events can play a big role in this, but the equipment you use can be a big part of lowstress management.
Many things can cause stress in cattle, but there are a few main things when considering new equipment: noise, the number of personnel needed, the natural behavior of the cattle, and pain or discomfort.
As prey animals, cattle are sensitive to noise. Something new that makes a huge racket will worry cattle more than something new that runs silently. Sound is a big thing to keep in mind when selecting new equipment.
Some equipment has been designed specifically with sound in mind. The aptly-named Silencer Hydraulic Squeeze Chute by Moly Manufacturing is an example of such equipment. According to the website, the product has been designed to keep operation quiet and a polyethylene coating in key places prevents any metal-on-metal clatter.
Bob Kinford, an agricultural author, consultant and speaker who focuses on low-stress handling, commented on the success of the Silencer Chute in lowstress management. He said a lot of hydraulic chutes place the hydraulic pump on the side or even on top of the chute itself. From the animal’s perspective, such a chute can feel like being trapped with a predator. Kinford pointed out the Silencer’s pump can be moved “as far out as the cord would allow.”
Another example of a lownoise equipment choice would be electric ranch vehicles. All-terrain vehicles (ATVs or four-wheelers) are common pieces of equipment on ranches today, but traditional gas or diesel models can be very loud. Just like in their standard vehicle counterparts, electric ATVs are much quieter.
Though electric vehicles in general have had difficulty in the past competing with gas or diesel vehicles in terms of power, advances have been made. A couple companies exist in the U.S. which produce allelectric ATVs specifically for ranching or hunting. Big selling points for these companies are that their products are not only lowstress for animals, but are made in America, don’t depend on oil, and provide the power and torque needed by consumers.
Having a minimum number of people around cattle will reduce their stress, especially for animals who are not regularly handled or used to people. Additionally, keeping people and dogs out of cattle’s flight zones will keep them more at ease. If low-stress practices are high on your list, consider equipment which reduces necessary personnel and/or keeps people (and dogs) farther away from the cattle.
As with many other areas of technology, more ranching equipment is becoming remotely controlled.
Many chutes and gate systems have become remote controlled now, meaning fewer people and/or less direct handling of the cattle is necessary. Not only do remote controlled cattle flow systems minimize cattle stress, they are also an answer to declining workforce availability and efficiency issues.
As mentioned, if cattle are allowed to move through a system of their own accord, they won’t be as stressed. Pen, chute and race systems which play on their natural herding instincts will keep animals calm.
Kinford spoke of the importance of corral designs that lacked corners. With corners and sharp angles, cattle can bunch up and stop the flow of traffic. This then requires the cattle to be driven rather than to flow naturally. Kinford referenced the value of circular corral designs like those made famous by Temple Grandin, and described a tear-drop-shaped design from Bud Williams.
When cattle can see each other—as in curved rather than straight-angled corral systems—they are more likely to follow each other willingly to a desired destination. Whether the destination is a chute and headcatch for ear-tagging and vaccinations, loading chute into a truck, or into a processing plant, cattle who can see their fellows are more comfortable going where they’re directed.
Pain and discomfort
Uncomfortable animals or animals in pain are stressed animals. Some necessary ranching practices are going to cause discomfort or pain—branding, castrating, disbudding, and so on—but if it can be avoided in as many situations as possible, all the better.
One of the easiest suggestions—and one made frequently by industry advocates and those interested in animal welfare—is to limit if not eliminate the use of electrical prods. Electrical shocking has been shown in numerous studies to increase blood concentrations of cortisol and lactate, both stress hormones. In one study, the lactate levels of electrically prodded animals were seven times higher than those of animals who were not shocked.
Sorting paddles, flags or show sticks with ribbons or strips of plastic attached to the ends are all low-stress alternatives to prods. When placed—not aggressively waved or shaken—in an animal’s natural flight zone, the animal will naturally move away most of the time. Utilizing cattle’s predator-avoidance instincts will keep them calmer than trying to force them into moving.
Comfortable and non-slip flooring is another area where equipment can aid in low-stress management. The fear of falling is a primal one, and a very important motivation for prey animals hard-wired to fear being easy targets to predators. An animal who continually slips in a chute, trailer, handling pen, or other area is more likely to become frightened, thereby stressed.
Ensuring cattle have good traction and even footing will prevent missteps and falling. This will not only defend against injury, but keep animals calmer. Imprinted concrete, flat-lying metal grating, sand, and woven mats of old tires are good examples of non-slip flooring.
There are many ways to emphasize low-stress management when picking equipment. Other considerations not covered here include the common-sense practices of selecting the proper equipment for your needs and keeping all equipment properly maintained. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor