People working with cattle can underestimate the power that cattle have, fail to use common sense and make themselves subject to injury, says Kerri Ebert, Kansas State University Research and Extension assistant for biological and agricultural engineering.
"Consistently, about 20% of reported farm injury accidents involve livestock," Ebert says. "Those are just injuries that are reported, though. Many livestock-related injuries go unreported because they are treated on the farm."
Injuries may occur when an animal is frightened. A person's attitude also can have a lot to do with an animal's behavior, says Janice Swanson, Kansas State University interim head for animal science and industry.
"If you are frustrated or scared, animals can sense it and will act in response to your behavior," says Swanson, who is an animal behavior specialist. "People working with cattle need to be able to 'read' cattle and understand their behavior patterns and flight zones. Otherwise they might find themselves in a situation that they can't get out of and could get hurt. If you stay calm and patient, then the cattle usually will, too."
Cattle evolved as prey animals and perceive humans as predators, Swanson says. When someone makes quick movements or loud noises, cattle may perceive the signals as a predatory strike. The last thing that a good handler would want to do is unknowingly send threatening signals to the cattle.
"A person's frustration doesn't always result from hard-to-handle animals though," Swanson says. "Sometimes working facilities that are not operating properly, are ill-designed, or are not maintained can cause handlers to lose their patience, cattle to balk, or create loud noises that scare cattle."
Maintaining facilities is an important factor in injury prevention, Swanson says. Just like a person needs to have an understanding of cattle behavior, they also need to understand how the facilities and chutes operate and where the safety gates are located.
Good facilities should be laid out to take advantage of animal behavior and sensory patterns, have solid sides to minimize distractions and be maintained regularly, she says. They should have non-slip floors and be free of anything that can hurt animals such as nails or wire.
"There is a strong correlation between facility design and injuries," says Joseph Harner, K-State Research and Extension agricultural engineer. "Inadequate facilities allow animals to turn around and not go forward, creating stress on the animals and handlers. Cattle also have a tendency to be afraid of shadows on the ground or areas that go from light to dark such as working barn entrances."
If cattle aren't moving properly, paddles and flags can be used to guide them in the right direction, Swanson says. Electric prods can be used as a last resort, but need to be used appropriately at the rear of the animal and only for a moment, then released. Dogs should be used appropriately and not abused.
"My take is that dogs don't belong in working facilities," Swanson says. "They work well in herding situations, but you want cattle quiet in the facilities and dogs could frighten them. Also, the dog's safety could be at risk when it's in a situation that it can't escape from."