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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Facilities > Fragile — Handle with care

Fragile — Handle with care

Jim Salfer

Published in Dairy Star November 12, 2005

“The rule to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness. A man’s usefulness in a herd ceases at once when he loses his temper and bestows rough usage. Men must be patient. Cattle are not reasoning beings. Remember that this is the Home of Mothers. Treat each cow as a Mother should be treated. The giving of milk is a function of Motherhood; rough treatment lessens the flow. That injures me as well as the cow. Always keep these ideas in mind in dealing with my cattle.”

W.D. Hoard wrote this quote over 100 years ago. But the way we manage cows today is much different that 100 years ago – now we have cows in confinement, fed TMR rations, milked in parlors, taken care of by employees, and managed by computer records. Is this just an old fashioned statement that has no relevance to today’s modern dairy farms?

One hundred years ago we called dairy farming “dairy husbandry.” Getting milk out of cows was considered more of an art than a science. In this era of computer programs and large herds, we often forget that the cow is basically the same. Granted, she produces much more milk, but she is still a living, breathing animal that needs certain amenities to perform at peak performance.

Consumers are also demanding that livestock producers treat their animals in a humane manner. McDonald's, Applebee's and others are beginning to ask their suppliers to document that the animal products they are selling are coming from animals produced in a humane manner.

The Farm Animal Welfare Committee recently recommended that all livestock have the following freedoms:

Is the only reason we should treat animals well because consumers are demanding it? NO. There is actually a growing body of scientific evidence that treating animals gently actually can improve performance.

Canadian and Danish researchers conducted studies where cows were either roughly or gently handled and then cow responses were monitored. Not surprisingly, cows handled roughly were more scared of humans, and defecated and urinated more often. Handlers wore different color overalls. The cows were able to distinguish the color difference when they were in other locations. For example, if someone wearing a red coverall handled cows roughly out in the freestall barn, the cows will be anxious around someone in the parlor with the same color coverall. This could have far reaching consequences if you issue uniforms and then have even one or two employees that handle cattle in a rough manner. As a result, the cows may perceive all persons with the same coverall color as potentially rough handlers. The same researchers conducted another trial looking at cow handling and the effect on milk production. Their conclusion was that the presence of the aversive handler during milking increased residual milk by 70% and reduced milk yield about 10%.

There have been two on-farm trials (one using 31 farms and another 66 farms) where cattle fear was evaluated based on the willingness of cows to approach the researchers. In both instances, researchers concluded that herds where cows showed more fear of humans tended to have lower production. One of the trials measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It was increased in herds where herdspersons negatively interacted with cows. Stress hormones can lead to immunosuppression that may affect the health of animals.

The bottom line is that all people should handle cows with care – at all times. One way to help you and your employees become less frustrated is to have good working facilities. Not many dairy producers I know are good with a horse and lasso. When cattle must be sorted, use methods that minimize stress. Chutes, headlocks and a few gates in strategic locations can work wonders in cattle handling. It has been shown that using electric prods and shouting affect cattle more negatively than gently tail twisting or slapping on the rump.

If you have family labor or employees, emphasize the importance of gentle cattle handling. Set a good example yourself. Make gentle cow handling a part of all new employee orientation.

Remember the quote in the beginning of this article by W.D. Hoard. If you handle all your cattle gently they will reward you greatly with increased profit and decreased frustration.

Treating animals gently at all times will improve feed intake (left) and milk production performance (right).
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