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Sharpen your cattle-handling eye for safety and utility

Jack C. Whittier for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 November 2017
Treating large livestock can be a bigger task

“Safety of man and animal” – these are words I often used in the classroom or during an extension meeting to describe one of the overall purposes of cattle-handling equipment and facilities.

This advice was also part of a Profit Tip from the University of Nebraska back in September 2008. The Profit Tip is titled “Cattle Health Management Mistakes to Avoid” and can be accessed in its entirety (University of Nebraska-Lincoln - Beef). Here’s an excerpt from that article which specifically focuses on safety when handling cattle:

“People must be trained in safe and proper cattle handling techniques and chute operation. Remember the ‘4 S’s’ ... Safety of yourself, safety of the people you work around, safety of the animal and safety of the food that will be made from the animal.

Personnel trained in the technique of proper handling, feeding and care of newly arrived animals make a great deal of difference in the performance of cattle during the first 30 days after arrival. Your personnel must not only know how to do their job but what kind of problems to expect with different sets of cattle.

Your veterinarian and nutritionist can aid you in a training program designed to meet the needs of your operation.”

Perhaps like some of you, I have been in situations when handling cattle in less-than-ideal circumstances, due to either inadequate equipment or lack of training or attention to what was happening by others on the crew.

I recall one experience where I was fortunate to not be injured worse than I was. I was in a chute behind a heifer doing a reproductive tract score for a research project at a cooperating ranch.

The cattle-handling facilities were actually quite good, but due to either a malfunction of the alley gate latch leading up to the chute, or perhaps due to lack of attention of the person pushing the next heifer toward the chute, I found myself caught between the heifer I was working on and the next heifer coming in.

Since my attention was on the front heifer, I did not realize soon enough the incoming heifer was determined to get to the front and, in the process, decided to climb on top of the first heifer and me. Fortunately for me, the operator on the headgate quickly released the headgate and let all three of us out – the first heifer, the aggressive second heifer and me.

I escaped with only a few scratches, some bruises and a broken pair of glasses. Yet, as I write this, I can still feel the sense of panic I felt that day when I realized what was happening. For me and for the two heifers that day, two of the 4 S’s noted above did not occur – safety of man and animal.

Sometimes situations like those I described just happen. However, attention to training and facility design will greatly decrease the risk and frequency of bad outcomes when working cattle.

Utility of handling equipment to manage cattle

A look back at the history of cattle management illustrates the evolution of cattle-handling options, from the lariat to the fully portable cattle corral systems used in some extensive production systems today. Due to the efforts of people like Temple Grandin, Bud Williams and many skilled equipment designers and manufacturers, we now have numerous equipment options to choose from.

Decisions about price, preference and experience all combine to allow cattle managers the tools needed to take advantage of the practices available in today’s cattle industry.

Two effective practices I believe have been implemented at a high rate due to advances and access to cattle-handling equipment are timed A.I. in commercial and seedstock herds and preconditioning of calves prior to weaning.

Both of these practices require gathering and working cattle beyond the typical annual times of pre-calving and preg checking. I have observed both of these practices generally result in higher-performing and higher-value cattle. Both are implemented more readily when handling equipment is functional. Yet both require a commitment to “get it done.”

I’ll cite one example of a rancher who made a conscious decision that the value of A.I. in his herd to meet his ranch objectives was worth the investment in facilities to improve the ease and safety to man and animal. This investment was required to process his cows three times in a short period of time so timed A.I. was possible.

While I was on the faculty at Colorado State University, I took a group of young ranchers on a tour to the West Slope. We visited John Raftopoulos’ Diamond Peak Cattle Company near Craig, Colorado.

John took us to the working facility he had just completed in order to do the steps needed to have a high number of his cows pregnant to A.I. in the first few days of the breeding season using a timed-A.I. protocol.

John’s sons were coming back to the ranch soon and, jointly, they had determined it was necessary to improve their facilities to accomplish their goals. I remember John telling our group that even though building the working facilities required time and money, he believed it would enhance their ability to use the tools available – like timed A.I. and preconditioning – to stay competitive in the beef industry.

I admired his “get it done” approach then and, as I look back now, I can see John and his sons recognized the importance of the 4 S’s of cattle handling to enhance safety of man and animal, and to incorporate practices to improve the utility of their cow business.

Every manager must assess their circumstances, ranch goals and available resources in order to make good decisions about cattle-handling facilities. However, rest assured there are numerous resources available to assist with the planning and design of functional, safe cattle-handling methods.

In conclusion, at this time of the year, I hope you have had a successful 2017 and wish all a Merry Christmas and productive New Year.  end mark

PHOTO: Treating large livestock can be a bigger task than expected. Training programs and safe utility are key to the welfare of all involved. Photo by Fredric Ridenour. 

Jack Whittier is with the University of Nebraska as District Director of the Panhandle District and the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, located in Scottsbluff, NE. He is also a professor in the animal science department at the University of Nebraska.

Jack C. Whittier
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