Tapping into animal behaviour while processing calves

Cattle handlers must be willing to learn from experience and the knowledge of others

With calving season coming to a close for many producers, it is time to plan an efficient and safe branding and processing day for the calves. It is important that cows and calves are handled calmly and with as little stress as possible to reduce negative impacts on their health and productivity, plus make the process smooth and safe for all involved.

To avoid the rodeo and stampede that can often appear in tandem, cattle handlers must be willing to learn from their own experience and the knowledge of others, but also have enough cattle empathy to put this information to good use. “Time is money” cannot be the theme of the day, so set aside ample hours for cow-calf pairs to be worked efficiently and quietly.

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Beyond the practical considerations such as maintaining good facilities, there are general behavioural principles to remember when it comes to cattle. They find routine comforting and reassuring and will generally follow the leader. Cattle react and read the handler’s body language and are easily confused if their attention is drawn in multiple directions by whips or flags. They seek a handler’s guidance and will generally do their best to not only avoid them but move where they are asked. That means it’s essential to make use of positioning and angles, moving in controlled, deliberate motions to gain the desired outcome in both the sorting of pairs and the processing of the calves.

But cattle handling is a physical and mental act, so practicality cannot be ignored. Low-stress cattle handling is not low-pressure cattle handling. Pressure is needed to create movement, but it is important to know when to release it.

“Just getting them to move and do what you want them to do, that’s stockmanship,” said Ron Gill, program leader for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, during a Beef Quality Assurance certification training seminar. “But when I take stockmanship to the next level and use that to actually manage the psychology and well-being of an animal, that’s low-stress handling. Use the right pressure at the right time and make sure they have a place to go.”

Flight zones and points of balance are always key when working cattle in any situation, including the sorting and processing of calves. Whenever possible, it’s best to work off the front of the animal and not try to push it from behind. Every movement along its path is a series of choices where it needs to believe it is making the choice it desires. When it arrives at a point of decision, stress rises, but when it’s offered a preferred choice, stress drops.

Before the actual processing begins, sort the young calves from their mothers as it is simpler to deal with only them, rather than having to worry about the cow’s whereabouts and intentions. The key to completing this sort safely and efficiently is patience, plus a good strategy and system. Always try to use the animal’s natural tendencies, attempting to make its movements and your wishes match.

A workable process is to bring the entire herd into a large pen and then allow the cows to leave back through the access gate. Cows are more willing to move past the handler than the young calves and the majority will exit smoothly. A double-gate system leading to separate cow and calf pens, which can be manipulated by the handler, is helpful. Or simply remove the bottom bar or two from the intended calf gate and allow the calves to duck under and into their pen as they make their desired “escape.” If using a corral system, calmly moving and directing the animals down a narrow alley in single file is a productive strategy.

When using riders to sort, try to use a shallow pen — a rectangular pen with the gate on the longer side. Use two rotating riders to quietly remove calves from their mothers. Station one rider near the gate while the other collects and pushes a calf through the opening. The first rider moves into position at the proper time to help funnel the animal out the gate and is then closer to the herd to gather the next calf.

If using the rope-and-drag method for the actual calf processing, ropers should be experienced and consistent. Processing day is not the time for untrained cowboys to practice their skill as injuries can quickly materialize in out-of-control situations. Consider setting up the pens or corrals in the existing pasture to make pairs more at ease in familiar surroundings. Slick grass is desirable for the sliding of calves but make sure there are no rocks in the area to injure them. Work small groups in shallow pens so the drag is as short as possible in a straight line. Depending on the skill of the ropers, calves should be caught by both back legs — never only one — or headed and walked toward the handlers. Be sure that once each calf has been processed, it is released with direct access back to its mother.

Calf processing day can be a stressful event, but it doesn’t need to be if done calmly and efficiently, keeping animal behaviour in mind. Good first experiences with limited stress and no fear are important for calves as they will always remember both positive and negative situations, plus the amount of stress associated with them. The simple fact is lower stress equals better animal care, better production and better health, which in turn means more money in the pockets. It’s all tied together.

About the author

Contributor

Bruce Derksen lives, works and writes in Lacombe, Alta. He has 30 years of experience as a hands-on participant in numerous branches of the Western Canadian livestock industry.

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