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Cattle handling facilities

on .

Michael Fitzgerald
Teagasc Drystock Advisor

Handling cattle is a major issue on most beef farms. Many farms have facilities that were built some years ago and are not equipped to cope with larger animals and animals with temperament issues. Accidents with livestock account for 33 per cent of non-fatal farm accidents and for 9 per cent of fatalities. Bulls are the main cause of farm fatalities and it goes without saying that where a stock bull is concerned you need to ensure that they are treated with the greatest of respect.
However, the vast majority of accidents with livestock are connected to other issues and it is the overall approach to handling livestock that I wish to deal with.
The issues can be summarised as follows:

  • The operator;
  • Breeding for easy handling;
  • Calving facilities;
  • Moving cattle;
  • Handling cattle for testing and dosing; and,
  • Loading cattle.

The Operator
A major variable in the handling of animals is the way in which they are handled. On many farms cattle are accustomed to being herded from a vehicle and are not used to the farmer walking amongst them. Their immediate reaction to being rounded up is to become agitated. There are benefits to be reaped from spending time walking among cattle and getting them accustomed to human contact. The exception to this is where a stock bull is running with cows in which case you should use a vehicle as a safeguard. The use of a paddock grazing system and meal feeding at certain times are part of this process of animals becoming accustomed to people.

Certain breeds are noted for temperament issues and progress has been made in recording information on animal behaviour and trying to eliminate animals with docility issues. These figures should be made use of when selecting animals for breeding especially sires. Every suckler farmer has had experience of cows that are wicked at calving and over-protective of their offspring. It is crucial that farmers are ruthless in culling these animals and ensuring that their daughters are not retained for breeding.
Calving Facilities
A lot of progress has been made in this area in recent years and the majority of suckler farmers have a suitable place for handling cows at calving.

Moving Cattle
In the past, cattle were driven from place to place but nowadays it is more the norm to get cattle to follow. On beef farms cattle respond better to the regular stockperson and are frightened by strangers. Many farmers use electric fence reels to coral cattle and encourage them to move in a certain direction. Bucket reared calves are easier to handle throughout their lives and it is a good idea to mix some of these with suckler bred animals to quieten the group. Meal feeding is often necessary to entice cattle to enter yards and to enable them to be held when required. This is the case especially where cattle are being fattened at grass. Beef farmers who make use of paddocks and where cattle are changed every two to three days find it easier to move cattle as they associate the presence of the farmer with a positive experience.
Fragmented farms create problems for moving cattle especially where cattle have to be moved on the public road. Cattle are usually only moved using a trailer which involves loading and unloading and also means having a holding facility on the outfarm and where this is located adjacent to the public road it can present a danger to passing traffic. Where rented land is farmed facilities to load and unload are often inadequate. Additional help is required in these situations and the risk increases where elderly or inexperienced persons are involved.
Thought should be given to the use of land away from the yard. Many farmers use it for growing silage or tillage crops. In terms of choosing a faming system you need to use this type of land for keeping cattle that are less likely to require transport home e.g. yearlings. Ensuring that groups consist of animals of a similar size means that routine tasks can be carried out on all animals at the correct time. On breeding farms having a two to three month breeding season will facilitate the presence of uniform groups on the farm.

Testing And Dosing
Once cattle are confined you need to ensure that contact is minimised. The use of forcing gates is desirable to prevent coming into direct contact with cattle. Many older units have a crush that is too low or of inadequate strength and a radical overhaul is needed to bring them up to the required standard. Other useful devices are a sliding gate or half-gates (hinged) on the race to control the movement of animals within the crush – see photos. Over the years there has been an increase in the use of pour-ons and injectibles but there has been a resurgence in the usage of oral drenches to control rumen fluke and in order to assist in administering these doses you can install an attachment to the head gate which will control the animal’s head (see photo). This type of device is also useful for administering intra-nasal vaccines. The design of the head gate is another area that can be looked at. Most head gates are base on a self-locking device. There are always some cattle that are reluctant to enter the head-gate and you should consider some of the better designs that are available. Cattle that have been poorly dehorned are a problem for head gates and greater care needs to be taken to ensure that animals are de-horned correctly. Another useful feature is a small gate near the head of the crush to gain access behind an animal that is bailed.

Loading Cattle
Loading cattle is another challenge for many cattle farmers. The larger the animals the bigger the challenge and bulls ready for slaughter can be particularly difficult to load due to their size. Some animals heading for slaughter have never been loaded before and this increases the difficulties. The strength of the steel is important and again facilities that minimise contact with animals are desirable. An escape hatch is very useful in the loading area (350-400mm).

Cattle Systems
There has been a noticeable lessening of interest in the production of bulls this year and one of the main reasons for this is the difficulty associated with handling bulls at grass in the second grazing season. Friesian bulls are particularly difficult in the second year at grass. Bulls in general also become restless in wet weather and when grass supply is inadequate. All of this has led to farmers considering the return to the production of steers or the production of under 16-month beef where bulls are kept indoors after the weanling stage.
As outlined, there are many hazards associated with livestock handling. Investment in cattle handling facilities should be a priority on cattle farms. If you are experiencing difficulties with handling cattle then you should talk to other farmers who have constructed good handling facilities and consider making improvements to your own set-up.