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Keep the herd and yourself safe around equipment

Mayzie Purviance for Progressive Cattleman Published on 22 February 2019
Working cattle

Animal safety has always been a critical aspect of any cattle operation. Without a healthy herd, there would be no meat on the table or money in the bank.

Protecting the members of your herd from disease and physical harm can be a distinct challenge, especially when managing a large herd that requires facilities and equipment.

Dealing with injury

Ron Gill, Ph.D., is a west Texas native and a professor and extension livestock specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Along with his professorial and extension work, Gill conducts livestock handling and facility design training around the world as well as runs his own cow-calf operation. Gill gives national training on cattle processing and avoiding safety hazards while operating processing equipment.

On animal safety surrounding processing equipment such as chutes, corrals and alleys, Gill breaks down the problem at hand to its simplest form.

“The biggest issue is simply the size of an animal and the need to restrain them in order to conduct regular animal health and management procedures,” Gill says. “This requires the restraint in a cattle squeeze chute made of metal and the insertion of hands, arms or body into the chute to conduct required procedures. In the process, a person can have hands or arms crushed, or bones broken, and perhaps be kicked by the animal in entering the chute to conduct a procedure.”

Gill goes on to say chutes are hazards within themselves. “Protruding metal, hinge points, slam points, and levers and doors can all pose a risk of injury to people in particular. Most chutes are designed to protect the animal inside but not necessarily to protect the person operating it or working through it.”

Gill touches on the subject of design issues among cattle-processing equipment. “There are design issues that can be unsafe where an animal can get a foot or leg outside of the chute while being restrained and can result in cuts or broken bones,” Gill says. “Although rare, these can occur. Broken metal in a chute can cause cuts and bruises but can be managed through proper repair of chutes before processing. Some chutes can present choking hazards to cattle that do not remain calm and standing in a chute.”

How you can help

As far as safety of the operator goes, fatigue is a big factor. If you’ve been working for hours on end in the heat of the day, it’s easy to get lax when operating processing equipment. “Some chutes are more demanding than others and can result in joint and muscle injury,” Gill says.

Although it’s easier said than done, injury when working cattle can be avoided. Many factors go into keeping cattle in check and perfectly healthy throughout processing.

Gill says safety hazards can be avoided through general caution and proper use of equipment. He also says regular maintenance and repair of equipment could reduce safety concerns in your day-to-day operation.

“It is important to realize when equipment is beyond repair and the best option is to replace it,” says Jason Banta, Ph.D., another educator on cattle processing and Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist.

Operator behavior

Gill says he teaches his students to expect the unexpected when processing cattle. “Be aware of your surroundings and the pressure you are putting on cattle. You may not be injured by the animal in the chute but perhaps by one behind the one you are concentrating on.”

“Being aware of your surroundings also includes being aware of what other people are doing and how that might impact your efforts. Good communication among everyone involved is important,” Banta adds.

Miscommunication among your team can create a domino effect and lead to major mistakes down the line. The last thing you need as a producer is to doctor the wrong calf.

Another often-overlooked safety factor is temperament. Keeping the atmosphere as mellow as possible may be difficult with all the hustle and bustle of running cattle in and out of a chute, but calm operators produce calm cattle.

“The most important aspect is to keep cattle as calm as possible while moving them into and through the processing facility,” Gill says. “That requires understanding cattle behavior and adjusting human behavior and pressure to create good cattle movement without eliciting an overreaction to pressure from the cattle.”

Making a recommendation for processing equipment is tricky because each operation has specific needs. However, Gill says most hydraulic chutes are made stronger and reduce potential fatigue among operators. Although costly, hydraulic chutes can be beneficial to cattle working.

Overall, an experienced cowhand is the key to a successful and safe day of working cattle. If you’ve got a hand who knows what they’re doing, doesn’t act out and can operate equipment with ease, safety hazards are easily avoidable.  end mark

PHOTO: Be aware of how long you’ve been working and the outdoor temperature. Exhaustion can be a safety factor when operating equipment. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Mayzie Purviance is a freelance writer based in Texas. Email Mayzie Purviance