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Cattle handling techniques are important to Minnesota dairy farmers – and their cows

Riki Sorge, DVM
College of Veterinary Medicine
April 12, 2014

On any given dairy farm, cattle are handled on a daily basis, whether it is for bringing the cows to the milking parlor or other management related reasons such as breeding. Interacting with cows is such a central part of the daily routine on dairy farms that probably few things are more frustrating than cows that don't do what (you thought) you asked them to do. It costs time and nerves. So besides keeping the human blood pressure (i.e. stress levels) under control and reducing the injury risk due to, for example, kicks, good cattle handling techniques also directly affect the stress levels and therefore production and reproduction of cattle.

The basic principle of good cattle handling is simple: Use your physical presence to put pressure on a cow to move her. With the exception of the friendly pet cow, cattle will move to avoid the pressure from the human. Obviously, the handler has to plan ahead where he/she wants to move the cows so that clear signals for the direction can be given. If the handler can't see a cow's eye, the cow can't see the handler and so the cow won't be able to react to the handler's signals. When trying to move cows, the handler needs be aware of his/her timing, angle, speed and direction of approach. Part of the timing during cattle handling is to give cows time to react to the handler's signals and to release the pressure once cows are starting to do what you asked of them. Shouting at cows won't help, because loud human voices stress cows even more than being physically slapped. Being flustered will simply distract cows from paying attention to the signals of the handler (their flight instinct will take over). The bottom line is that the animals are reacting to the behavior of the handler – so if cows don't do what the handler asked them to do, then it is usually the handler's fault by giving unclear signals and by not paying attention to the cattle and their environment.

In fact, study participants of a recent survey1 of Minnesota dairy producers found that the handler was even more important than facility design for the establishment of good cattle flow to the milking parlor. Keeping cattle calm and responsive is particularly important on the way to the parlor (which starts in the pen). As studies have shown, if cows are stressed, adrenalin will diminish the oxytocin response and their milk let down will be impaired. As a result, cows will not milk out and producers will lose milk. In addition, stressed cattle are more likely to defecate or urinate as well as kick in the parlor – none of which are particularly pleasant for the people working in the parlor and will likely affect their attitude towards work. In the survey, 13% of farms reported that employees had lost workdays due to injury in the previous year and that cattle were involved in about 75% of these injuries. When asked about the primary reason for these accidents, most producers thought that it was the handler's fault for not paying attention to the cows.

So it does not come as a surprise that cattle handling techniques were almost as commonly part of employee training as the milking routine or parlor cleaning protocols on Minnesota dairy farms. Training was mostly done by herd owners or managers who had learned cattle handling predominantly from family members or by trial-and-error. However, in particular producers of larger farms (>200 milking cows) also had sought out low-stress handling training seminars to learn more about best cattle handling practices. An interesting finding of the survey was that those herds that had previous stockmanship training tended to have about 1,760 pounds higher rolling herd average than herds that did not – even after accounting for the herd size. Whether this difference in production was due to the stockmanship training, attitudes of producers towards their animals and/or employees, or the adoption of novel or best management practices cannot be answered with the available data. But one can safely conclude that good handling techniques are important for the well-being of both cows and people, and for the overall smooth operation of a dairy farm.

More information about stockmanship for dairy farms can be found here:

1 Sorge, U.S., C. Cherry, and J.B. Bender. 2014. Perception of the importance of human-animal interactions on cattle flow and worker safety in Minnesota dairy farms. J. Dairy Sci. (In press).

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