Simple Low Stress Handling Principles

Published on Fri, 09/09/2022 - 9:49am

Simple Low Stress Handling Principles.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 Occasionally, instances of improper animal handling appear in the public eye. This is what creates negative stereotypes about dairying and harms the entire industry. Of course, on a practical level, producers know poor handling and high-stress management go much deeper than that.

These types of environments negatively impact milk flow and overall farm well-being. However, employees may not always understand this and the temptation to cut corners or lose patience are very strong.

The fact is, anyone who works on your dairy will, to some degree, be involved with daily tasks that often involve several interactions with animals in a single day. This could include time in the parlor to sorting and pen checks. All of these instances require low-stress protocols ensuring animals are moved or worked positively.

It’s worth noting that stress, to one degree or another, is inevitable whether cows are moved by foot or via transport, be it to the parlor or across state lines. But reducing other stressors through human actions like limiting yelling or excessive physical force makes a big difference in experience for the animals. Low-stress handling not only creates a safer environment for people and cattle, but it can also significantly increase efficiency, saving you both time and money.

Handling factors
Stress involves multiple levels of bovine physiology, some of which can be controlled even outside the time of stressful events. For example, good nutrition can impact the way animals handle stress. Likewise, when animals are excessively stressed, they will also eat less, which can affect production and health.

The principles of good handling are rooted in natural animal behavior and instinct. All cattle, as prey animals, have individual flight zones in which they will move away from the pressure of an approaching person or animal.

This area is large or small for a particular animal, partly due to its behavior, but it can also be influenced by good stockmanship. Calves that are handled well with lots of human contact from a young age will naturally have a much smaller flight zone than those raised in a pasture with few human interactions. On the flip side, animals encountering negative experiences with people at any point in life will develop a more extensive flight zone.

Heat stress can also significantly impact an animal’s handling behavior. Knowing and observing the temperature-humidity index (THI) should be a factor before doing specific intensive tasks involving a lot of movement or handling. Cattle with opportunities to escape the heat and recover in cool areas will be much less irritable for handling.

Mario Villarino of Texas A&M makes a point in his article Low Stress Cattle Handling in Dairy Environments that cows have a very different perspective on shadows and objects in a pen-based on their limitations in visions (in that they are only able to view two colors).

In addition to the vision limitation, their depth perception does not allow them to distinguish the real distance between them and an object (or people). Their vision excels in the peripheral, but even that is only to a certain extent.

Hanging objects like equipment, hoses, clothing, etc. may confuse cows and increase their stress levels as they can’t clearly distinguish what they are. Cattle also have acute hearing and are very sensitive to excessive noise, making it essential to keep all noise to a minimum whenever moving cattle.

In her article Handling Reminders for Dairies: Training Resources, South Dakota State University extension agent Heidi Carroll notes:

“Use calm voices only when needed to encourage cows to move along; speaking to a cow when you must enter her blind spot alerts her that you are there and minimizes the startle response.”

It pays in the parlor
Establishing a routine with daily handlers and employees is an essential cog in the daily workflow. Staying consistent aligns with a cow’s natural, habitual nature and allows the animals to go through daily movements without the stress of new experiences or encounters.

Handling related stress (and the cortisol it produces) is known to impact performance in the parlor significantly. Studies have shown that animals with higher cortisol levels also have a suppressed immune system and are more prone to mastitis infections. It also interferes with oxytocin inhibiting milkflow and letdown during milking.

A low-stress mindset should be engrained in all employees interacting with cattle during their routines, even if they aren’t actively moving them. Milkers should be taught to move cows into their stanchions as gently as possible and keep noise levels at a minimum. There should be no misplaced objects in or around the pathways that cows use as they move to and from the parlor.

Practical implementation
When employees are trained to handle cows with a low-stress mindset, it also forces them to pay more attention to the environment and adjust handling accordingly. Low stress movement helps avoid  falls around sharp corners or slippery areas and will prevent pileups in narrow alleyways.

That said, animal movement should always be considered when updating facilities. Pathways should be as simple as possible with few distractions. Areas that might be prone to overheating should be supplemented with fans and misters if they must be used during the hottest part of the day.

Handling animals in the early morning can prevent added heat stress, along with limiting the time they are locked in the headlocks or chutes, according to Animal Handling During Heat Stress, an article by written by Aerica Bjurstrom, Sarah Grotjan, Jennifer Van Os and Amanda Young and published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy extension. Notably, the internal temperature of a cow will peak approximately two hours after the environmental temperature peaks and takes two to three times longer for it to retreat to normal.

Implementing methods to reduce stress has tried and proven practical applications on farms, but they are also crucial for maintaining a positive public face of dairy cattle welfare.

While much of it is common sense, low stress handling is rooted in patience and the individual characteristics of each animal. This is why it’s essential to ingrain good practices in employees. Not only will these practices help promote efficiency, but they will also contribute to enhanced efficiency and time management in the long run.