Stress down
Intelligent, humane livestock handling methods improve the management experience for people and animals

By Sarah Rider

April 1, 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.

The 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.

Low-Stress Animal Handling Workshops

Dr. 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 attending.

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 them.

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 cattle’s natural reactions to make them 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 being handled.

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.