Livestock Safety Handling Tips

by Marion Barnes, County Extension Agent

Colleton, Hampton & Allendale Counties, Clemson University

One of the most important issues to consider when working with livestock is safety, not only for the animal, but for the handler as well. Most farmers never take the time to consider why animals behave the way they do and how this behavior affects their personal safety. Many times animal handling practices are often learned from watching others and from our own experiences growing up around livestock. Too often this results in unsafe animal handling practices.

Cattle are powerful, quick, and protective of their territory and offspring and can be especially unpredictable during breeding or calving time. Although considered domesticated livestock, working with cattle carries an inherent risk of danger. When it was time to work the calves on our farm when I was growing up we would get help from our neighbor who had several sons and in turn we would help them work their calves. It was not a question of if or when, but who would be the first to get kicked, stomped, butted or rolled in the dirt. We young boys would always get a “kick”, (no pun intended) out of seeing others on the receiving end.

It’s important to understand that cattle have both instincts and habits, also called behavior patterns that are based on actions for the most part that make them comfortable. These instincts and habits allow them to react to changes in their environments. However, many of these instincts are strong and potentially dangerous. Each year many farmers are needlessly injured (sometimes fatally) because of lack of safety awareness. Broken bones, crushed and mashed limbs, missed days of work and unnecessary medical expenses are just some of the results of livestock related incidents. A study in four western states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska) between 2003 and 2008 indentified 21 cattle-related fatalities. The report indicated that decedents tended to be older (60 plus years of age) (67%) and male (95%).  Circumstances associated with the incidents included working with cattle in enclosed areas (33%), moving or herding cattle (24%), loading (14%), and feeding (14%). One third of the fatalities were caused by animals that had previously shown aggressive behavior. Not surprisingly, 48% involved bulls and 14 % involved cows with calves. Understanding cattle behavior and using common sense when working cattle can greatly reduce the risk of injury to livestock handlers.

The following are some important livestock behaviors and tips for working safely around cattle.

Animal behaviors and precautionary measures

  • Beef and dairy cattle are generally color blind and have poor depth perception, sometimes showing extreme sensitivity to contrasts, which may cause an animal to balk at shadows or rapid change from dark to light. 
  • Cattle have a panoramic field of vision, which means they can see everything around them except what is immediately behind their hindquarters. This is the animals “blind spot”. Approaching from the side or front will be less startling to these animals than approaching from the rear.
  • Cattle have a tendency to kick forward or out to the side, where horses and mules kick to the rear for the most part. Cattle are inclined to kick toward the side with pain or injuries.  For example, it would be advisable to approach a cow suffering from mastitis in one quarter of the udder from the unaffected side. 
  • Cattle who are use to being around other animals can become frightened and agitated when separated, becoming dangerous and difficult to handle. When appropriate keep animals together, they will be more calm and cooperative when in groups.
  • Cattle like other livestock are extremely sensitive to loud noise and can become easily frightened or spooked. In an attempt to move away from the source or direction of the noise and in addition to their poor depth perception and color blindness, they may crash into or through gates, fences or people. When working cattle be calm, deliberate, and patient and avoid yelling.  Also be cautious around animals that are blind or deaf on one side. They often swing around quickly to investigate disturbances and if standing too close, a person can be easily knocked down and trampled.
  • The flight zone is one of the most important principles regarding cattle behavior and safe handling. It is the animal’s personal space. Cattle will react in a variety of ways according to handlers activities related to their flight zone. When the handler is outside the flight zone livestock will face the handler and maintain a safe distance. On the other hand, animals will turn away from a handler that enters their flight zone. Working from the edge of the flight zone will generally keep livestock calm and manageable.
  • The point of balance is another behavioral principle and is associated with an animal’s flight zone. An animal’s point of balance is located at their shoulders. Most animals will move depending on a handler’s position relative to their point of balance. This principle can be use to move livestock through crowding alleys, pens, chutes and squeezes. When a handler stands behind the animal’s point of balance, the animal will move forward. When the handler stands in front of an animal’s point of balance, the animal will stop or back up. By adjusting ones position the handler can encourage the animal to move in the desired direction.
  • Livestock with young exhibit a maternal instinct. Cows with young calves are sometimes more defensive and can be difficult to handle.  The younger the calf the more the difficulty. If possible let calves stay close to the mother cow when handling.
  • By virtue of their size and disposition, bulls may be considered the most dangerous of domestic animals. Bulls are more aggressive during breeding season and are extremely dangerous while fighting. Handlers should never turn their backs on a bull and never trust a bull; particularly a “loner bull” reared or kept in isolation. The older the bull the more dangerous they can become. Being able to recognize various body postures of threat and aggression displayed by bulls will allow for safer handling.
  • Zoonotic diseases, illnesses that can be transmitted between humans and animals are a sometimes overlooked concern for livestock handlers. Leptospirosis, rabies, brucellosis, salmonellosis and ringworm are especially important. Livestock owners can be exposed to zoonotic diseases by being bitten by an animal, handling an infected animal or disposing of infected tissues. To reduce exposure to disease, use basic hygiene and recommended sanitation practices.
  • Good facilities play a major role in safely handling livestock. Properly constructed facilities allow livestock producers to perform routine chores as well providing a means controlling and restraining cattle. Construct corrals, holding pens and other facilities with the safety of the livestock and the livestock owner in mind.

In summary, by having the proper facilities, planning ahead, using common sense and good judgment and understanding animal behavior, farmers can increase their level of safety when handling livestock.