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Why it’s wise to think like a cow...

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01 May 2016, at 1:00am

Richard Gard reports on an event in Devon on practical cow flow and handling.

IF YOU HAVEN’T WORN THE BINOCULAR GLASSES that mimic bovine vision, then trying to walk with them on will be a revelation. The first reaction is to put out your arms because you cannot see to the sides. 

The first farmer to try the glasses was gently admonished by Miriam Parker when he touched the wall, as cows do not have arms. Gradually a head-down posture with side-to-side head movements allowed the wearer to negotiate a straight line up the meeting room.

A light push in the back and the farmer tenses and resists the pressure with a more upright stance. Reaching the wall at the end created a problem because that required spatial awareness and senses beyond vision.

What quickly became evident was the need for a level floor. Any unevenness, downward slopes, stones, holes, etc., meant that the tread was more cautious and slower.

Bump a cow from behind and she slows up. Herd a large group of cows and they will move more slowly than a small group. Split a large herd into smaller sections and the overall time to move the herd will be shorter with less stress.

Football crowds are held back so that a manageable group can pass through the exits; less pushing and shoving. Related to herds of bovines, with dominant and more timid members, lessons from large group movements are very relevant to on-farm herd management.

Bicton College in Devon hosted an evening meeting to discuss “seeing the world through your cattle’s eyes – practical cow ow and handling”. This was arranged by AHDB Dairy (Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board) and Mike Hardcastle introduced the topic by relating his experiences of cattle handling in Zimbabwe.

One farm owner considered it would be a good idea for his staff to wear fluorescent yellow jackets to herd the cattle so they could be seen in the bush. The last bullock to be rounded up had travelled for 32 kilometres.

The DairyCo best practice guide states that “every farm that handles cattle should have proper handling facilities which are well designed, maintained and in good working order. This is not only important for the welfare of the animals which are due to be handled but also for the safety of everybody associated with the task”.

Miriam Parker (Livestockwise Ltd; www.livestockwise.co.uk) is a specialist in cattle handling and in designing facilities to enable the efficient ow and movement of cows. A colleague of Temple Grandin, she is very much at the practical end of bovine movement.

Available at the meeting were copies of the EBLEX beef manual Improving cattle handling for better returns, written by Miriam and published in 2014. This manual is written for farmers, but it is of real value for cattle vets.

Cattle handling is a day-to-day eventful activity involving veterinary surgeons and others, but few farms can claim to have a safe system. The difference between the theory and the practice was clearly demonstrated at the meeting.

In the classroom the group shared many of the aspects of cows and how they behave towards one another and to people. Gradually leading us to shed the idea that cows are to be forced into acceptable behaviour, we were led to think like a cow and plot a path through the practicalities.

Recognising that the instinctive response of a prey animal is fight, flight or freeze, it was accepted that when herding cattle these instinctive responses are counter-productive and need to be avoided.

As Miriam says in the introduction to the booklet, “if you consider your farm through the eyes and ears of your stock, you will be surprised at how alarming some activities are and how frightening some of your yards and buildings are”.

Seeking solutions

When the group moved outside, to view the milking parlour, yards and handling facilities, the levels of attention and awareness raised up a gear. The farmers immediately recognised issues with their own layouts and wanted to highlight difficulties and find solutions. Cows exiting the parlour were in sight of the cows waiting to be milked, leading to slow entry. 

Hold back low-yielding cows rather than push them with a back gate, for more eager entry to the parlour. A right-angle turn on exit from the parlour leads to cows stopping and holding up flow (back to the glasses again). 

Cattle dislike sharp right-angle bends because they appear to have dead ends and they lose visual contact with the animal in front.

Wearing the glasses, a farmer was asked to approach the handling pen that had an angled side on both sides. From straight in front it was difficult for him to approach the crush and starting from one side extremely hard without bashing into the side gates.

Keeping one side of the race entrance straight and the other at a 30-degree angle improves the facility. The gathering pen viewed had straight sides and no escape area for staff. For the holding pen, long and narrow is better than square as cattle cannot circle and bunch as easily.

Circular pens are preferred to square or rectangular ones as an approach to the handling crush, as the cattle will follow one another up the raceway without getting bunched in the corners. 

Clothing and colours

There was a discussion about clothing with a consistency being recommended. If the person gathering or calling the cows always wears a blue boiler suit, for example, the animals will get used to their appearance and be more relaxed and move forward more easily. 

Lively beef animals will move forward if the herdsman is wearing red and carrying a yellow flag. There are real differences between the various livestock, but the overall message is to achieve the objectives calmly.

The introductory notes to the meeting mention that “good cow flow ensures quicker milking and jobs such as vaccination, AI and TB testing are easier and safer when stock are run through a correctly designed system”.

Peter Reed from Bicton introduced the dairy herd and showed the group around the facilities. He pointed out that the 24-unit milking parlour was underused because 60 cows had been slaughtered due to bTB. The figures for 2015 have now been released and are available on the DEFRA website.

A quick review indicates that the number of cattle herds in the south- west are around the same as last year, but there has been a 6% increase in new incidents (2,637 herds), a 16% increase in reactors slaughtered and a 2% increase in herds not TB-free (4,229).

For the individual local counties the various assessment criteria are within one or two percentage points of the previous year. The number of herds not TB-free for Cornwall is 28% (823), Devon 33% (1,570), Dorset 21% (267), Gloucester 34% (365) and Somerset 22% (555).

The frequency of testing for bTB with the 4,000 plus herds in the south- west places emphasis on the need for safe facilities.

Miriam discussed the attitude of dominant cows in a herd where they hang back and let other cows go forward for testing first. This may be a factor why many of the accidents to farmers and vets while bTB testing occur in the middle of the test when these cows exert their disruptive dominance.

This meeting overran the allotted time and we very much appreciated the pasties while discussions and enquiries continued. Practical cattle handling is a topic that comes across very well when standing within the available facilities. It would possibly bene t from a full-day session with cattle movement demonstrations.

Many of the on-farm applications have come from installations at markets and abattoirs and the work done with large beef herds overseas. There is no doubt that, given the opportunity, farmers recognise the need for understanding and improvement.