Cattle handling safety

Daniel J. Hubert, Research Assistant, Oklahoma State University
Raymond L. Huhnke, Professor and Extension Agricultural Engineer
Sam L. Harp, Associate Professor and Extension Agricultural Engineer

For those who work in production agriculture, there are inherent physical risks prevalent on a daily basis. In fact, agricultural occupations are consistently ranked as some of the most dangerous in industry. This is not surprising, as most farmers and ranchers consider the physical difficulties of their daily tasks as "just part of the job." In most cases, a better understanding of how an animal may respond to human interaction and to its immediate surroundings will help keep the worker from becoming an injury victim.

1. The Human Element

Human error is the primary cause of many types of accidents, which most often occur when people are tired, hurried, upset, preoccupied, or careless. Using this information in combination with proper cattle handling techniques can reduce your risk of injury.

2. Animal Behavior

Understanding cattle behavior can help farm and ranch workers avoid dangerous situations.

Animal Vision Cattle have panoramic vision, meaning they can see in all directions, except directly behind, without moving their head. Additionally, cattle have poor depth perception, especially when they are moving with their heads up. In order to see depth, they have to stop and put their heads down. For this reason, unfamiliar objects and shadows on the ground are the primary reasons for cattle balking and delaying the animals behind them. This is why it is important for handling and working facilities be constructed to minimize shadows. Cattle have a tendency to move toward the light. If working cattle at night, use frosted lamps that do not glare in the animal's faces. Position these lights in the area where you are moving cattle, such as a trailer or barn.

Flight Zone The flight zone is an animal's personal space. When a person penetrates the flight zone, the animal will move. Conversely, when you retreat from the flight zone, the animal will stop moving. The size of an animal's flight zone depends on its fearful or docile behavior, the angle of handler's approach, and its state of excitement. Work at the edge of the of flight zone at a 45 to 60 degree angle behind the animal's shoulder (Figure 1). Cattle will circle away from you. The flight zone radius can range from five to over 25 feet for feedlot cattle and as far as 300 feet for range cattle. If you are within their flight zone, the animal moves away or retreats.

Figure 1. Cattle flight zone.

Note: Animal movement stops if handler is in position "A". Handler moves to position "B" to start movement. When moving cattle, avoid approaching them directly. Try to work them close to the point of balance, moving back and forth on a line parallel to the direction the animal is traveling.

3. Additional Handling Tips

In addition to the flight zone, an understanding of the "herd instinct" is important.

A. Cattle follow the leader and are motivated to follow each other. Each animal should be able to see others ahead of it. Make single file chutes at least 20 feet long, or 30 to 50 feet for larger facilities. Don't force an animal in a single file chute unless it has a place to go. If the cow balks, it will continue balking.

B. In crowding pens, consider handling cattle in small groups up to ten head. The cattle need room to turn. Use their instinctive following behavior to fill the chute. Wait until the single file chute is almost empty before refilling.

C. A crowding gate is used to follow the cattle, not to shove against them. If a lone animal refuses to move, release it and bring it back with another group. An animal left alone in a crowding pen may become agitated and attempt to jump the fence to rejoin the herd.

D. Handling Facilities - The proper design, construction and operation of a cattle handling facility is important to insure safe working conditions for animals and humans.