Feedlot Cattle Handling Practices

Feedlot Cattle Handling Practices

Steers in feedlot
Cattle that have acclimated to routine human interaction are less likely to mask pain or disease, allowing for earlier detection and treatment on an individual basis. Photo credit Troy Walz.

Stockmanship and low-stress cattle handling is a topic that receives a lot of attention. Even the latest report of the National Beef Quality Audit (2022) identifies cattle handling as an area for “focused improvement,” due in part to the persistence of bruising.

In a recent discussion of the Quality Audit results, I was asked to identify potential sources of these bruises.  A proportion of the bruises are found across the topline of fat cattle, affecting high-value cuts from the loin. These types of bruises have been attributed to the design of cattle trailers, and more specifically the dimensions of the entrance to the bottom deck. Other bruises can occur due to riding, improper capture in the squeeze chute, catching hips on corners or gates, and slips and falls, to name a few. While a number of the potential causes of bruising are known, it’s difficult to isolate when and where these injuries occur. For many, it can be difficult to manage and prevent such injuries without being able to clearly isolate every incident and factor.  Despite the difficulty in connecting a specific factor to a bruise in real time, and determining a specific cost associated with that bruise, it’s helpful to think about the causative factors holistically in order to prevent loss.

The BQA Feedyard Assessment for cattle handling includes six categories that are scored during handling or processing of feedlot cattle: electric prod use, improper capture by the front catch, vocalization, jumping and/or running, stumbles, and falls. Two of these targets (prod use and catch) are handler-based measures, and the remaining four are animal-based measures, yet none of these outcomes occur independently of the other.  Handler outcomes may be a function of several factors including cattle behavior and handler skill level.  Animal outcomes may also be a function of many factors, including previous experience, genetics, and handling prior to the squeeze chute or window of observation.  What’s important to recognize is that cattle are a product of their cumulative experiences with people.  Cattle that are acclimated to handlers walking among them react less in subsequent interactions with humans on foot.  Cattle that are acclimated to horseback handling are more reactive to other methods of handling until they have been acclimated to it. There is some evidence to support that some consistency and frequency of human interaction is necessary for cattle to remain well acclimated to humans.  The less frequently cattle have contact with humans, generally speaking, the more stressful contact with humans can be.  Of course, if all contact with humans is negative for cattle, then their aversion for human contact is reinforced.

It might take extra time to walk or ride a set of cattle daily or more often, but the more regularly this occurs, the more acclimated cattle become to this practice, and the more they relax in the presence of people, which should be our goal for a number of reasons.  Cattle that have acclimated to routine human interaction are less likely to mask pain or disease, allowing for earlier detection and treatment on an individual basis. Cattle that are acclimated to humans and low-stress handling techniques move more quietly than cattle that are not acclimated to handlers. While we’re all familiar with the adage, “time is money,” this must be understood through the lens of our mentor’s reminder that the ‘fastest way to work cattle is slow.’ This is actually true for any skill – think of athletes, for one.  Athletes that perform at the top level and achieve the fastest times only do so through starting slowly, training for correct form, adding in countless repetitions, and slowing things back down to refine technique and improve their results.  Time is money in the cattle industry.  Not taking the time to acclimate cattle to handling actually sets cattle up to be more reactive, flighty, and more stressed during “routine” handling events, such as vaccination, placing implants, and more.  Cattle don’t automatically adjust to low-stress handling methods if they have not been acclimated to them.  Certainly, handlers can reduce the noise they make and the pressure they use during handling, but their presence alone will be a stressor if cattle are not acclimated to them, and this is a point that probably isn’t stressed enough in the discussion of low-stress cattle handling.  Flighty cattle that are not well acclimated to human contact tend to travel faster when being moved from point to point, and may crowd in alleys and gates. Speed and crowding in pinch points (gates, corners, etc.) contribute to an increased risk of stumbles, falls, bruising, or other injuries. Dr. Tom Noffsinger, who is somewhat of a legend in the cattle feeding community, said about cattle handling: “whatever they do when you’re with them is because of you, not them.” (https://www.beefmagazine.com/policy/tom-noffsinger-5-end-goals-of-proper-animal-handling) Slowing things down, removing yelling and excessive pressure helps signal that we’re not a threat.  Ensuring positive interactions, and establishing good communication helps reduce stress in both the short and the long term for cattle, and can significantly reduce risk of injury.  Cattle that are calm can make good choices about their path of travel, for example.  Cattle that are in fight or flight mode cannot make good decisions about avoiding a gate post or going around a corner too fast, because their sole focus is escape and survival.  This would be a perfect example of time (cattle getting between two points in less time) being money, where faster actually costs the industry.  Cattle that are agitated take longer to return to eating, resulting in loss of gain.  Injured cattle have a harder time competing for feed resources, and bruising is a serious economic defect that the 2022 Beef Quality Audit reports an increase in over the 2016 report (https://www.bqa.org/Media/BQA/Docs/9477-nbqa-document-fedcattle.pdf).

The 2022 Audit specifically identified handling facility design, and cattle handling training as area for “focused improvement.”  These findings only serve to increase my excitement regarding the potential that exists to expand our service to the industry related to these needs.  Klosterman Feedlot Innovation Center at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is nearing completion, and has been designed to serve as a testbed for facility design.  This new research facility is one-of-a-kind, and will allow innovative research related to cattle comfort and productivity.  The Center boasts options for observing cattle handling without interfering.  A training space will be available to support undergraduate experiential learning opportunities, graduate student training, non-formal industry training, and much more.

If you’d like more information about current research and Extension activities related to facilities, handler skill level assessment, or cattle handling training resources, email me at ruth.woiwode@unl.edu


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