Properly designed facilities reduce cattle, handler stress

Design stress-free handling facility then train people how to properly communicate with animals, says livestock expert

Cattle, like rabbits and many other animals, have eyes on the sides of their head.

The location of their eyes is fantastic for peripheral vision and allows them to detect predators sneaking up from the side or be-hind.

With that in mind, a livestock handling expert from Nebraska wonders why cattle facilities are sometimes built with solid walls.

“What part of the animal are you communicating with?” asked Tom Noffsinger, who spoke to beef producers at Brandon’s Keystone Centre earlier this month.

After a few moments of silence, a member of the audience responded with the correct answer: “the eyes.”

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Noffsinger nodded and then asked the crowd a few more rhetorical questions.

Open alleys that allow cattle to see the handlers and where they are going prevent panic situations. | Paula Larson photo

“An animal that lives with peripheral vision, why would we ask them to go in a solid (walled) alley?” he said. “So why would we build a facility 12 feet tall out of solid metal (walls)?… They want to see you. They want to see their destination.”

Merck Animal Health invited Noffsinger, a veterinarian from western Nebraska, to talk about low stress cattle handling in Brandon.

Noffsinger trained at Colorado State University and spent much of his career at a clinic in Benkelman, Nebraska.

He is now an independent feedlot consultant specializing in facility design, stockmanship and low-stress livestock handling

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Noffsinger gained part of his knowledge from the late Bud Williams, an expert in stockmanship who was known for his techniques and a phrase that summed up his methods: “slow is fast and less is more.”

After training with Williams, Noffsinger unlearned his ingrained strategies for moving cattle.

“I spent 25 or 30 years running around and acting like an idiot … because I didn’t understand my job.”

Noffsinger repeated a few points about the cattle handling facilities and how they should be designed:

  • Cattle need to see where they are being asked to go
  • Cattle choose to go back where they entered from
  • Open alleys facilitate cattle-handler interaction

He showed dozens of photos and videos to illustrate his points. One photo showed an entrance to a cattle processing building in Nebraska with high, metal-sided walls.

The metal was eventually taken off the walls and replaced with steel pipe to make an open fence. The change had a huge impact on cattle movement, Noffsinger said.

“Cows just flew around the corner,” he said, adding that cattle can see their handlers when the fences are open.

“This facility design thing is something we’ve changed drastically. We use it both in the processing barn and in the fat cattle load out systems.”

Noffsinger said low stress handling on the farm and during times of processing, when cattle receive vaccines, brands or implants, can have a significant impact on cattle performance and health. It also reduces the risk of accidents.

One video showed two truck drivers trying to load cattle, and doing it the wrong way.

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The drivers waved flags and were obviously yelling in the video, usually from behind the cattle.

Noffsinger shook his head as he watched, then showed a video of the right way to load cattle onto a truck.

The handlers were calm, made slow movements and kept their eyes on the eyes of the animals.

They were also positioned to the side.

“If you want them to back up, walk by them. If you want them to go forward, walk against them,” Noffsinger said.

Slow and careful movements are critical but other factors are equally important, he added.

“Our posture. Our position. How far away we are. The angles we use.”

Learning such techniques to move cattle doesn’t happen overnight.

Noffsinger suggested that producers use videos posted online at www.creatingconnections.info, to gather information on low stress cattle handling.

He emphasized that properly designed cattle handling facilities are important but the ideal facility doesn’t work without skilled people.

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“Please don’t build one of these unless you train your people to how to communicate (with cattle).”