|April 6, 2004: I’ve
always hated going to the dentist. Still do. I’ll guess,
and hope, that my mom never enjoyed taking me there as a child
because I can still remember the tantrums that I would throw
before, during, and after getting into the car, not to mention
what I did once I got in the office.
Today, as “mom” to 40 beef cows, I’m lucky
I don’t have to take them all to the dentist, but we
do have our own special challenges. We have trailer-loading
day; the day that our peaceful existence together as farmer
and livestock disintegrates.
Handling animals at my farm has become an event that has
driven my dear friends away in droves, because they innocently
answer my pleas to help with the round-up exactly one time.
And if cows can roll their eyes, mine are doing it behind
my back when I start talking about calling the livestock hauler.
Except for Baby.
Baby was a feeder calf I got from a friend who had hand-raised
him because he was an orphan. Baby would go anywhere you wanted
him to, and at a run if you had a white bucket in your hand.
After I got Baby, my strategy for loading day was this to
gather the herd, lure them into some fraction of the 60-acre
pasture, and trot on the trailer with Baby right behind me.
Then came a lot of praying that the target steer would follow
him on. If that didn't work, then came flapping my arms, yelling,
trying to scare the others onto the trailer. Then came chasing
the herd when they all ran away. I usually repeated the entire
process for several hours until another steer was in the trailer,
then sneak my “dummy steer” out and send in the
right one, who by that point was as tired and frustrated as
I was. That was on good days; on bad days the trailer went
off to the processor empty.
I postponed the day when it would be Baby’s turn to
go on to the trailer for real. I had broken my own rules.
No names. No pets. When the day came, the trailer backed up,
I opened the door, and without my even asking Baby (like always)
jumped right in. All day I had been anticipating how I would
have to struggle to look like a serious beef farmer while
mopping up my tears at this moment, but as I closed the trailer
doors, I was surprisingly ecstatic. I was filled with pride
to see him leave as the same calm, stress-free animal he had
been in the pasture that morning.
I had heard of no-stress handling before, but Baby inspired
me to believe it could be a reality, and I swore that I was
going to find a way to make that final experience with my
animals as peaceful as the rest of our days together. It was
less stress on me. For the first time, I had been purely confident
that that animal had lived a great life, from the day he came
to the farm, to the day he left. It was the first time I had
seen one of my cows leave the farm and not doubted my ethical
validity as a farmer. It doesn’t make much difference
how they are raised—if an animal leaves my farm scared,
I feel like I have deceptively given him a great life only
to stress him out in his final hours.
Humane handling improves
quality of life and quality of meat
Soon after this experience, I heard about a workshop on animal
handling sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable
Agriculture (PASA). I jumped at the opportunity. Dr. Jennifer
Lanier, a director of scientific programs for the Humane Society
of the United States and a prominent researcher in animal behavior
and livestock handling, led the workshop. She has worked closely
with Dr. Temple Grandin, the revolutionary figure in animal
handling systems design. It’s no surprise that they have
found that the pre-slaughter stress of an animal is a significant
meat quality indicator. The hormones that are released in response
to stress cause tough, dry meat. The meat industry has taken
note of this research and Dr. Grandin has influenced significant
changes in how animals are handled prior to slaughter.
small group of participants was broadly experienced in animal
handling and each had their own nightmare loading story to
tell. There were students, extension agents, farmers, and
animal researchers, every one looking for a new approach to
animal handling. By doing handling exercises with Penn State’s
well-trained beef herd, the group learned first hand the inherent
difficulties of dealing with prey animals.
Animal Handling Workshops
Jennifer Lanier and the Humane Society of the
United States have been working with regional
sustainable agriculture groups to offer a series
of practical training sessions covering livestock
behavior, facility design, low-stress handling,
and predator/wildlife issues. Workshops are tailored
to meet the needs of the farmers interested in
Upcoming workshops are scheduled for May
23 in Harpers Ferry, Va.; Aug.
13 at the NOFA Summer Conference in Amherst,
Mass.; and Nov. 18 in Frankfort, Ky.
Workshops are in development for New Mexico,
Minnesota, and Maryland.
For more information or to organize a workshop
in your area, contact Robert Hadad, Director of
Farming Systems, Farm Animals and Sustainable
Agriculture, The Humane Society of the United
States, 2100 L St. NW, Washington, DC 20037; tel.
(301) 548-7787 or (301) 258-3113; www.hsus.org.
Our first assignment was to move a group of steers from one
holding pen, down an aisle, into a holding tub, through a
curved chute, then weigh them on a scale and move them through
a squeeze chute. Like several other producers there, as we
got started I was saying under my breath that this would be
no big deal because Penn State has a handling set-up of which
any farmer would be envious.
But even after our handling lessons that day, with the “best”
equipment, and a group of experienced folks, we still struggled
with the chore. We tried for almost an hour to move the herd,
and only got about 80 percent of the animals where we wanted
Dr. Lanier was quick to take advantage of the teachable moment
to remind us “it’s not about your facilities,
or what you are wearing, it’s about reading the animals."
It takes practice—and lots of it—to truly empathize
with animals, to assess their temperament, read their stress
levels in a given situation, and to change our human behavior
to accommodate their natural tendencies.
One emphasis of the workshop was on ways of reading animals
to determine their biological proclivities towards skittishness.
This subtle information can help tailor your approach to a
herd. Dr. Temple Grandin has studied the association between
hair whorls on an animal’s forehead and temperament.
Generally, the higher the whorls on the forehead, the more
skittish an animal. No whorls on the face generally indicates
the most high-strung animals. Bone structure is another phenotypic
indicator of temperament: the smaller the frame and bone structure,
the higher likelihood of a “hot” temperament.
I was once told that “the fastest way to move animals
is slowly." And I couldn’t have found that advice
to be sounder. The hardest part to change about animal handling
is the way we move. There is some instinctual reservoir that
humans draw from when dealing with animals. You see the animal
you want and they look like they're going to the right place,
they just need a little push. If we don’t read the animals
and adjust our plan accordingly, we tend to fall back on brute
force, which is almost always stressful for the animal.
A few simple rules
The principles of the workshop revolved around how to change
human behavior to make handling animals stress-free.
- First and foremost, train animals to be handled.
- Watch your own body movement; move slowly and deliberately
with no jerky motions.
- Size matters to cattle, so be aware of your size, and
adjust as needed. When fully facing a cow you appear bigger
than if you show it your profile. Flapping your arms, wearing
a big hat or a blowing shirt makes you look even bigger.
- Work quietly with as few people as possible, as mob mentality
soon takes over if too many people are involved. Because
round-up tends to draw a crowd of spectators, that may mean
fulfilling that social function in some other way. Dr. Lanier
suggests having “a party later in the day, on some
other part of the farm, but not in with the cows.”
- Leave dog and kids at home or in the truck. With their
quick, unpredictable movements and high-pitched voices,
dogs and kids can seem like predators to cattle.
- Cattle have two points of balance, one at the shoulder
and one at the hip. By directing pressure at these areas,
you can use the animal’s natural reactions to make
it move forward or backward.
- Each animal has its own flight zone: roughly an egg-shaped
orbit, the size of which depends on the training and temperament
of the animal. Understanding basic prey animal behavior
can give you insight on how your animals are reacting to
As you reexamine your handling procedures from the perspective
of a prey animal, consider the other things that can cause
possible hitches in your system. Novelty—something new
or out of place (to the animals, not to you)—can potentially
instigate a serious traffic jam. Shadows, sharply contrasting
colors, or glare may also be problematic. Because cattle have
a herd hierarchy and are social creatures, overcrowding will
challenge their dominance structure, yet solitude is rarely
welcome. Being prey animals that need to be able to make a
quick get-away, they have a great fear of falling. They will
avoid uneven or slippery surfaces, as well as mud or water
where the underlying surface is unpredictable.
Many of these situations can be remedied by simple measures.
Tape cardboard over spaces to give an appearance of more solid
sides. Use lights to illuminate dark corners. Work at a different
time of day so there is less shadow. Move the truck that is
causing glare off the windshield. Dry up mud holes. Partition
off corners, so that holding areas are rounded and animals
are less likely to get stuck.
Most importantly, when problems arise, before the pushing
and shoving starts, stop and re-evaluate the situation. Once
the animals reach the point of being stressed out, they are
much harder to handle and generally more dangerous. As we
were fruitlessly working the animals, one participant discovered
the benefit of stopping pressure before the situation got
out of control. She found that when the animals balked going
into the holding tub, if she “released the pressure
and gave them a minute, they walked right in. If I followed
my natural inclination to continuously push them when they
stop, they would turn around and bolt.”
Dr. Lanier pointed out that our successes and failures handling
animals that day were a clear example that even with “all
good planning and good thoughts, it can all go wrong”—in
other words, handling animals is extremely variable. The only
thing you can plan on is having to use every modicum of your
patience, self control, and empathy. A major principle we
heard throughout the day, and finally had to put into practice
that afternoon, was “when in doubt, take a break,"
which is more difficult than it seems when the animals are
so close to where you want them!
This summer when I'm loading steers or hogs to be processed,
I’ll think of the potential for truly stress-free handling
that Baby taught me. I’ll use the principles laid down
in this workshop for creating a potentially harmonious handling
system, which in turn will change the most stressful part
of raising animals into a respectful and pleasant experience.
And who knows, maybe I’ll even be prepared with new
insight someday when it's time to take my kids to the dentist.
Sarah Rider received a B.S. in
agronomy from Penn State three years ago. She now runs a mixed
livestock operation near Centre Hall, Pa.