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Low stress cattle handling for a safe calving season

For many of us that have been around cattle the biggest risk is becoming complacent and not putting safety first.   Agriculture is a dangerous occupation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and The Center for Disease Control regularly collect injury and death rate information and the numbers are alarming.  From 2003 to 2007, there were on average 583 agriculture related deaths per year.  In 2011 agriculture had 557 deaths.  Transportation and construction had more deaths, but agriculture had the highest death rate at 24.4 deaths per 100,000 workers.  As the graphs below indicate, farming is the most dangerous occupation compared to other industries.


Most of the deaths occurring on a farm, involve equipment and tractor accidents, but 25-30% of all deaths are related to livestock production.   A study conducted by the Iowa Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation with the Great Plains Center for Agriculture Health examined all the livestock related deaths in 2008 for Iowa and Nebraska.  This study pointed out that handling cattle accounted for 85% of deaths. 

Table 1.  Trends and activities associated with reported deaths


During the calving season we may allow our focus on safety to waive.  Feeding hay and the daily chores may have become routine.  However, the activities associated with calving season are the ones shown to be associated with increased risk of injury and death.  We are MOVING animals into calving pens and we may need to work in an ENCLOSED AREA to assist them during calving.  Often we are LOADING animals to take them to different pastures. 

Low Stress Animal Handling From a Safety Prospective

The animal is the primary cause of injury in 85% of the Iowa and Nebraska deaths.  If we take into account some principals of how animals react to stimulus we can then anticipate their response.  We can begin to use low stress handling techniques to get the desired result with less stress on the animal and less risk for injury to ourselves.  The items listed below are the basic concepts to keep in mind when working with animals.  Calving season is a time when we are in close contact with animals and these low stress handling tips can help decrease the risk of injury.

Field of vision

Cattle have very good periphery vision which covers 340 degrees except for the blind spot directly behind them.  Staying out of the blind spot can help avoid kicking risk and rapid movement by the animal.  Cattle will want to keep you in their line of site. 

Flight zone

Every animal has a flight zone.  Once a threat enters this area they react by moving away. 



Pressure zone and point of balance

Every animal has a zone where they will react to pressure or stimuli from handlers.  Pressure is just the human presence and movement.  On the diagram below, the A is outside the pressure zone and movement will stop when at this location.  The B is inside the pressure zone and will initiate movement.    Point of balance is the spot where our pressure can move an animal forward faster or change direction.  Most of low stress handling training is learning how animals react to minor changes in your location relative to the point of balance.   We do not need prods, canes, load noise or shouting to get animals to react.

Return behavior

Cattle will want to go back to where they came from.  Take this into consideration for layout of head gates and calving pens.  A cow will walk past an open gate and continue down a straight lane.  If they are allowed to turn around and go back, the will turn into a pen or head gate alley if they think they are going back to where they were. 

Calving season is a great time.  The calves are the reward for our efforts to provide the proper care and nutrition needed for a profitable herd.  It is a time when we are in very close contact with the animals.  Take some extra to consider safe handling practices.