Getting new equipment is always fun. Bright, shiny new toys! But that shiny element, not to mention the newness of it, could cause a lot of undue stress for your cattle. There are a few simple things to keep in mind when getting new equipment.
When it comes to handling cattle, any sort of distractions—anything from a coat hanging on a post to something new—has the potential to cause stress to the animals. This stress is multiplied when it comes to handling cattle through a chute or pens. Not only is this a welfare issue for the cattle, but the more stressful the handling is for the cattle, the slower and more dangerous it is for the handlers.
Famed livestock behavior expert, Dr. Temple Grandin, told WLJ that “you need to be really careful with new equipment.”
She explained that cattle will react to something new. They will balk or not flow through a chute or pen system properly if there is something new that they haven’t seen before.
Grandin, who deals mostly with processing plants and has revolutionized the design of pre-slaughter handling facilities, talked largely about equipment that might be seen in settings like that; chutes, pens, ramps, etc.
Giving cattle time to experience the new item in a low-stress setting—like a practice run—is a good idea, but not always feasible. When it comes to getting and then using new equipment, try to minimize these visual features:
• Reflections and contrast;
• Unnecessary movement in/around equipment;
• Unnecessary visual blocks in cattle’s path; and
• Changes on the ground.
Reflections and contrast
Cattle can be very sensitive to high contrast settings, meaning that reflections on shiny surfaces can be a real problem. Sometimes this issue is an issue with the equipment itself— smooth stainless steel can make an excellent reflective surface—but lighting plays a big role.
WLJ asked if matte finishes on equipment would work well to address reflection problems. Grandin said that it would be a good option, but that cattle working through chutes and pens will eventually rub exposed surfaces smooth regardless of what sort of matte finish or coating might have existed.
Ultimately, changing lighting—assuming pens are inside or under artificial lights—is the easiest way to reduce reflections. Grandin told a story about a small meat plant she visited and simply changing the lighting location got rid of reflection issues.
“It works like magic,” she said of moving lights. “It blows my mind.”
Unnecessary movement and visual blocks
Grandin said one of the worst issues with chutes in particular is the backstop. Not only is this an often unnecessary visual block to cattle, it can often move too much for cattle comfort.
“If that backstop jiggles, that will make them balk.”
Grandin said she often will tie a chute’s backstop back to keep it from moving and to prevent it from blocking the animals’ vision of what is ahead of them. She explained that cattle, being herd animals, like to be able to see about two cattle-lengths in front of them at least. Being able to see their herd mates ahead of them makes them more comfortable and sure there is somewhere to go.
Differences in the ground—changes from dirt to concrete, metal struts supporting equipment, a hose on the ground—can distract cattle and make them stop, particularly in a new situation. When it comes to new chutes, Grandin recommended covering metal ground struts that cattle will have to walk over with dirt. This reduces the visual contrast that can distract cattle.
All around, Grandin said those who work with cattle need to observe the situation where cattle and equipment or settings are concerned.
“What you have to do is watch and see where the cows stop,” she said of identifying problematic details in equipment or handling settings. “The best thing to do is to get down into the chute at the height of the cow.”
She said identifying issues has a lot to do with training people to see them. Cattle are easily distractible and distractions, like reflections and harsh contrasts, are stressful. Keeping in mind these details can help when picking low-stress equipment.
“You can have a brand new facility that is perfectly laid out but be absolutely ruined by distractions.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor