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Cattle Handling Basics

Key characteristics of cattle

  • With eyes on the sides of their heads cattle have an almost 360 degree peripheral vision with both head up and when head-down grazing.
  • They have narrower 25-50 degree binocular vision looking forward.
  • They have a blind spot at their rear so are very keen to keep checking that no threat is approaching in that area. They do this by moving their heads regularly.
  • Their hearing is 4 to 10 times better than humans.
  • Their sense of smell is much more acute than humans.
  • They have a 'point of balance' behind the shoulder and in the middle of their heads which can be used to move them.

Checking first reactions in the paddock

  • Before you go in among stock, check their behaviour and reaction from a distance - and certainly from the other side of the fence. Check that things look normal before you go into the paddock.
  • The open space of a paddock is usually a safe area, as it’s familiar territory for stock, especially if they’ve been there a few days. But remember it’s their territory so be observant and beware at all times.
  • Determine the class of stock to be handled as this will dictate their behaviour. Here are some examples to watch out for:
    • A single old stock bull.
    • A single young bull.
    • A mob of young bulls being reared for service or beef.
    • A mob of dairy heifers.
    • A mob of dairy cows that are handled daily.
    • A mob of non-lactating beef cows
    • A mob of beef cows suckling calves.
    • A group of weaned beef calves.
    • A group of weaned dairy calves.
    • A group of calves being artificially reared before weaning.
  • Isolation is one of the biggest stressors for animals of all kinds, so be especially careful of any animal on its own.
  • All bulls should be considered at potentially dangerous. Don’t believe some breeds are better or worse than others. If they have testicles - regard them all the same!
  • Single bulls are always potential trouble, especially when they get old and territorial. Old bulls will be slower to move than young bulls but remember they can all go from zero to 40kph (25mph) in a few seconds and carry from 600-1000kg (1300-2200 lb) with them so you have very little chance of survival if attacked. After knocking you to the ground they crush you with their weight or if horned will rip you open. 
  • Dairy stock are usually easy to handle as they have seen a lot of people from birth. They recognise strangers as often when visited, they had some trauma inflicted on them. Being moved at unfamiliar times of day makes stock suspect trouble too.
  • Beef stock especially from hill country will not have seen as many people, and they may be used to only seeing people on a horse or bike and be regularly moved by dogs or the crack of a whip. They could easily be panicked by people on foot in the paddock or yards.
  • Beef cows normally hide their very young calves in a crèche when they are away from them grazing. The cows may panic if they see you as a threat, and especially if a calf starts blaring.
  • Note the reaction of all stock when you approach them - their 'flight or flight' response and how far this is. Do they come up to investigate your presence or run away? Or do they approach you with a threat? In cattle that have been used to human handling the average flight-fight distance is about 5-6m (15'-20').
  • If you suspect aggression for example from a bull or cow with a calf, back off and seek help. The most common signs of aggression are:
    • Rushing towards you with head lowered and pawing the ground.
    • Standing facing you with head raising and lowering,
    • Roaring with saliva dribbling from the mouth.
    • Snorting with and mucous flying from their nostrils.
    • Large protruding eyes with the white parts very obvious,
    • A side-on stance with one eye looking at you and head ready for a side-swipe shown by bulls.
    • Tail raised and swishing, and defecating profusely,
  • If you have a dog make sure it will respond to your instant commands and most of all that it responds when told to do nothing - to 'sit', 'stand' or 'get outside' the paddock, yard or pen. So many accidents happen when the dog thinks it knows best.

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