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Practicalities of pen checking

Bruce Derksen for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 October 2019
Checking the cattle

In today’s cattle industry, feedlot pen checkers often work alone and require the ability to safely and efficiently pull sick cattle from a pen.

And with the proven link between stress and illness, it is imperative they become capable of completing this task in a stress-free manner.

First, a potential candidate must possess “cattle empathy,” which is hard to pinpoint but can be described as a personal enjoyment of working with cattle on a day-to-day basis. Those who possess this empathy will eventually come to obtain an innate ability to “read” cattle and will be more tuned in to how they react to human actions.

Lynn Locatelli, DVM and owner of Cattlexpressions, New Mexico, says, “Pen checking is a skill and an art. Whenever there is an art and ‘feel’ involved, some people are inherently more sensitive, tuned in to the animals.”

Pressure zones

There are a few general facts pen checkers must be aware of. Cattle are prey animals, tend to move in groups and will generally follow the leader. Their eyes are located on the side of their face and thus they employ panoramic vision, making it important for them to see their potential destination as well as what is near them. If given a reasonable choice, they would rather go where they are asked than confront a handler. The best pen checkers make use of all these factors.

Locatelli explains that building trust between handlers and animals is essential. “When cattle are at ease with pen checkers, they don’t become nervous or agitated; they are relaxed, doing normal activities and express how they truly feel. Pen riders can get cattle to willingly work for them and can then identify abnormalities very early. Just as important, they can get single animals out of the pen in a quiet, relaxed manner instead of just chasing them out the gate.”

But pulling cattle is a physical act, so this established trust will be tested by using pressure. A pen checker must learn to use the correct amount in the right way at the right time to engage movement, plus understand when to release it.

Other essential concepts are flight zones and points of balance. Flight zones, or personal spaces, vary in size and shape depending on an animal’s docility and position. They are not circular bubbles but can be distorted shapes depending on what is beside or around an animal and where it desires to go.

The point of balance is the point on an animal where it will move forward or backward based on the position of the handler, usually around the front shoulder. If movement passes this point, the animal will move in the opposite direction. Again, a pen checker must learn and understand this principle and be able to position themselves properly.

The actual checking of a pen can be broken down into three segments which include pre-entry, working the pen and making the pull.

  • Pre-entry: A rider should begin checking a pen before arriving at the gate. Pause and observe the next pen when leaving the completed one. Much can be learned from viewing livestock in their relaxed state. Once inside, the checker becomes a threat to a varying degree, causing sick animals to blend into the herd.

  • Working the pen: Once inside, begin routinely building trust. It’s important to become familiar with the overall personality of the pen and the individuals in it. A checker must be aware of each pen’s “normal” state so the “abnormal” can be recognized. A wise rider once summed up this part of the job by saying cattle need to see a pen rider as a guest, not a predator. Although hard, to help accomplish this, try to blend in by moving deliberately and slowly. Use the trails they use. Take your time.

“When pen riders rapidly move through pens, simply looking for sick cattle, the cattle may be fearful and alert, and can effectively hide sickness,” says Locatelli.

Criss-cross the pen and be sure to get every calf up. Take suspect animals for a short walk looking for anything out of the ordinary such as coughing, wobbling, hind-end weakness, limping and unnatural body positioning. It is vital to pay attention to their reaction when released. A healthy animal will look back to confirm their safety, while the sick calf will usually continue to look forward and away.

  • Making the pull: This is where knowledge of flight zones and points of balance become crucial. Begin pulling nearest the gate, moving animals slowly and quietly, steadily applying small amounts of pressure to their safe zone. Use fencelines as an aid and allow animals to pick their way around obstacles such as mud or ice.

    Cattle must be able to see the handler out of the corner of their eye without turning around, so it is important to stay out of the blind spot directly behind them. Maintain enough of a buffer that the animal has time to stop occasionally, pass manure or urinate.

Keep flight zones and points of balance in mind in all their movements, as their route can be thought of as a series of choices where they should believe they are in charge. When they arrive at a point of decision, stress rises, but when a pen checker reacts properly and offers an acceptable choice, stress drops. Moving deliberately and slowly also allows time to “see” the gate. A panicked animal will look at an open gate and not “see” it, while a calm animal will identify the gate and trot out as if it was their idea all along.

Reducing stress in feedlot cattle means less sickness and increased profits. A key component of this is pen checkers identifying and pulling sick cattle through the process of pre-entry, working the pen and making the pull. By possessing cattle empathy, earning trust and learning how to employ proper pressure through knowledge of flight zones and points of balance, pen checkers will increase efficiency, cattle welfare and profitability.  end mark

PHOTO: Flight zones, or personal spaces, vary in size and shape depending on an animal’s docility and position. Staff photo.

Bruce Derksen is a freelance writer based in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.