Patience pays off

Ever been to a social function when someone was standing just a little too close, just inside your personal space? Chances are, consciously or unconsciously, you took a step away.

Cows have something similar. It’s called a flight zone, and if you enter it, they’re going to move, says Ben Bartlett, a Michigan State University Extension dairy and livestock specialist in the U.P.

Knowing that, he says, getting cattle to move doesn’t have to be a loud exhibition that scares cattle and opens the door for injury. Cows that are fearful of humans are also less productive.

Asking instead of demanding is sometimes difficult when you’re in a hurry. But when handling cattle, slow is the new fast, says Bartlett, and there’s not only efficiency to be gained, but also profits.

“In dairy herds, it means lost milk production,” he adds. “Cows kick off milkers, hold back milk and crap in parlors.”

Key Points

• Cows have a flight zone; if you enter it, they will move.

• Cows behave the way they do because of their anatomy, instinct and experience.

• Train your staff to be good animal handlers.


Kate Breuer, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, found heifers that were hit, or rushed in and out of a parlor produced 3 fewer pounds of milk per day, lost 30 more pounds of weight and experienced more lameness than cows treated more calmly.

From that same university, Paul Hemsworth did a study with 14 dairy farms and measured fearfulness in cows. He found that 30% to 50% of the variance in milk production between farms could be explained by the level of fear shown by the cows to humans.

M.F. Seabrook, who wrote “The Psychological Interaction Between the Stockman and His Animals and Its Influence on Performance of Pigs and Dairy Cows,” reported that in a study of 12 similar farms, cows handled aversively — in a way stressful to the cows — had milk yields that were reduced by 1,460 pounds per year, took twice as long to enter the parlor and defecated six times more often.

And, cows do remember a bad handler. Jeff Rushen, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Quebec, found that milk production could be cut by as much as 10% if an abusive handler was simply in the parlor and not necessarily doing the milking.

Good management

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cow whisperer. “But, understanding why cattle act the way they do is good for animal welfare and your bottom line,” Bartlett says.

Low-stress cattle handling requires understanding a cow’s anatomy, instinct and experience.

Cattle’s eyes are located on the sides of their heads. They can see up to 300 degrees around themselves, but have poor depth perception. They cannot see directly behind them, says Bartlett, and worry when people are in their blind spot. Cattle also have limited vertical vision and have to put their heads down to see the ground in front of them, which is why they like to follow other cattle in a path that’s been safely established.

“If they’re not following another cow, you need to give them time to look down,” Bartlett says. “She wants to know where she’s walking. She also prefers to move uphill instead of downhill.”

Cows are scared of shadows and quick motions, and will go to areas where it is lighter. Because they have a keen sense of hearing, loud noises are very disturbing, Bartlett says.

Cattle have instincts to herd together. “They don’t like being alone. Remember, they are a prey animal, and they are really afraid of falling because that means they could get trampled or be easy game for a predator,” Bartlett says.

Experience also plays a role in the way animals act, he adds. Just like cows learn that a tractor and a wagon mean food, they also can learn that being chased somewhere is unpleasant and scary. Having a good first experience with handling or new environments will play a big role in whether that animal will be willing to do it again. “A cow being hollered at, pushed and hurried into the parlor for the first time won’t be in any hurry to do that again,” he says. “The golden rule of low-stress animal handling is slow and quiet. By taking your time, you can walk animals just about anywhere you want them to go, and in less time than it might take three people pushing and hollering from behind.”

Ed Pajor, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Purdue University, found that yelling is as aversive to cattle as using a hot shot.

Smart movements

In addition to a flight zone, cattle also have a point of balance. Getting close to the flight zone asks an animal to move, and when you get too close, the point of balance determines the direction, he says. “It’s about angles,” Bartlett says. “Generally, if you apply pressure in front of the shoulder, animals go backwards or turn away. Putting pressure behind the shoulder will ask the animal to go forward.”

This can be helpful in getting the first animal to move. “You need one person up front to help with the lead cow; it doesn’t make sense for everyone to be in back pushing,” he says.

Having good facilities, with sound footing and proper lighting helps animals move more confidently and helps prevent lameness. However, even well-designed facilities will not make up for poor handling skills and a lack of cattle behavior knowledge, Bartlett says.

There are three kinds of people, Bartlett says. A few are natural-born cattle people, who just have a way with animals. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are not cattle people and should not work with animals at all, while most are people who can learn to be good cattle handlers. Providing employees with training “is a good investment and wise decision for reducing stress on animals and people. Don’t tolerate abusive behavior and reward those who are good with cattle.”

Learn more at www.animalagteam.msu.edu or contact your county office at 888-MSUE-4-MI.

Editor’s note: Bartlett was a speaker in a series of December workshops across the state designed to teach producers how they can improve foot and leg health, and performance in their herds. The series also addressed “locomotion,” which helps farmers recognize an arch in the back as an indicator of lameness and hoof problems, as well as “right-sizing” cow stalls and proper hoof trimming. Read more about these topics in future issues of Michigan Farmer.

DVD available

Ben Bartlett has produced a DVD titled “Low-Stress Cattle Handling.” It costs $25. Order it from Michigan State University Extension, Chatham Extension, P.O. Box 168, Chatham, MI 49816. Make checks payable to Michigan State University. Bartlett also recommends “Moving ’Em,” by Burt Smith; “Stockmanship,” by Steve Cote; and “Humane Animal Handling,” by Temple Grandin. Order from www.amazon.com.

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CALCULATED MOVEMENTS: At the Trierweiler Dairy in Portland, Ben Bartlett explains how moving cattle slowly with precise movements reduces stress on the animal and guides the animal to where it needs to be faster than raising your voice or using a stick.

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SAFE PASSAGE: Cows fear shadows and other objects that might be in their walkway. Given the chance, they will drop their head to investigate the object.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.