Unless you know where to look, it can be difficult to spot a problem on your dairy. That's certainly true with regard to any animal handling problems that may exist.

Poor animal handling isn't limited to the use of a hot shot or twisting of tails. Poor animal handling - the type that can lead to economic loss - includes anything that elicits a fear response in cows or heifers. Yelling, whistling and hurrying animals into the parlor or a chute are prime examples.

Most animal handling problems occur in a few key areas on the dairy. The following checklist was developed with the help of Temple Grandin, assistant professor of animal handling and behavior at Colorado State University; Jeffrey Rushen, cattle behavior and stress physiologist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Center in Quebec, Canada, and Susan Eicher, research physiologist at the USDA's Livestock Behavior Research Unit in West Lafayette, Ind.

Use it to help you determine how you can improve animal handling on your dairy.

Rearing calves

In order to develop cows that are comfortable being handled, you must start when they are calves. And remember, animals can develop permanent fear memories of specific places, people or pieces of equipment. Make sure that an animal's first experience is a positive one.

Use these ideas to guide your actions:

  • Take time to walk slowly among the calves. Let them get used to being around people. If employees wear aprons in the parlor, have calf employees wear the same color aprons when feeding, or walking among the calves. This practice allows calves to become accustomed to being around people - and the milker apron - before they ever enter the parlor. However, when you need to treat a calf, always remove the milker apron. You want all memories of the apron to be positive.
  • When feeding calves, talk quietly to the animals.
  • Train heifers to headlocks. Ideally, heifers should encounter headlocks before they enter the milking string. Allow heifers to eat feed through the headlocks for several days before locking them up. Then, lock them up for about 30 seconds and release. Over the next few weeks, slowly increase the amount of time heifers spend locked in the headlocks. Above all, never treat an animal the first time she is locked in a headlock. Doing so could lead to a permanent fear memory, causing the animal not to eat through the headlocks once she is placed in a free-stall barn.
  • Always use a squeeze chute with feeder alleys - a narrow lane that directs the animals where you need them - to process calves for vaccinations. Curved feeder or snake alleys work best, but, at a minimum, you want to make sure that the system you use does not include any dead ends where calves have to make a sharp turn to advance.
  • Score handling in the chute. The next time you're working calves through a squeeze chute, answer "yes" or "no" to each of the following:

    • Do employees yell, scream or whistle at the calves?
    • Do animals enter the chute at a rate faster than a trot?
    • Did the animal fall down at any time during the process?
    • Did the animal get hit on the head with the headgate?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, it indicates room for improvement.

Transporting animals

Whether moving animals to a different pen or a different farm, the transportation process causes stress. Although the physical needs of the animal and its ability to cope with stress vary with age, special precautions should be taken. Keep these ideas in mind:

Calves not yet weaned

  • When moving young calves, do not herd them from behind. They have not developed a herding instinct yet. Instead, young calves must be led. They will readily follow a person carrying a bucket of feed or a milk bottle.
  • Use a calf cart or calf sling to move calves that are less than two weeks of age to a different location on the farm.
  • When transporting calves less than two weeks of age to another farm, the animals will develop extreme fatigue. Always give electrolytes upon arrival.
  • Avoid transporting calves that are less than five days old.
  • When loading calves onto a pickup or truck, use a ramp with a slope of no more than 4 percent for calves to walk up.
    n Allow calves sufficient space to lie down without being crowded. Always provide adequate bedding and ventilation for the trip. Remember that bedding depth and ventilation rates will need to be adjusted according to the weather that day.


  • Never try to move a single animal. Always take another animal along for company. Isolated animals often panic, turn around and run past the handlers, which can lead to injuries for both the animals and the handlers.
  • When moving animals from one production group to the next, always move more than one animal at a time. It's best if you can move all of the animals into a new pen at once; however, that is not always practical.
  • When moving animals into a new group, always make sure there is more than one source of water and plenty of bunk space.
  • Instruct your employees on how to use the point of balance to move cows. (Please see the illustration on page 39.)
  • If you gently pat a cow on the behind to urge her to move forward, stop patting her once she starts moving. Continued patting could cause her to bolt or become confused.
  • When moving a group of animals, if a cow stops and looks over her shoulder at you, don't run up to encourage her to keep moving. Instead, stop and perhaps take a step back. When a cow looks over her shoulder at you, she is telling you that you have gotten too close. This is the most common mistake made on farms, and it leads to a lot of injuries for both cows and people. (Please see the illustration on page 38.)
  • When moving a cow out of a maternity pen, never place yourself between the cow and her calf. Instead, open the gate, step aside and allow the cow to walk out on her own. Or, with another employee present, you can remove her from the pen.

Treatment facilities
When treatment areas are designed correctly, and employees have been instructed on how to handle animals properly, the process can go very smoothly. However, this is one area on farm where problems are often found. To minimize stress on animals during treatment, you need:

  • Non-slip flooring. Animals that lose their footing panic and become scared and unpredictable.
  • The treatment area must be easy to clean. Clean facilities help prevent slippage injuries.
  • Use a headgate that is a straight-bar stanchion type headgate. This type of chute is the same width at the top and at the bottom. That way, if an animal should go down in the chute, freeing her will be much easier with less chance of injury to the animal.
  • If you use headlocks to restrain animals for treatment or to give routine vaccinations, be sure that "shot day" is not an animal's first experience with headlocks. Otherwise, the animal could develop a permanent fear memory of headlocks.
  • Make sure that treatment areas are well lighted. Animals will balk at changes in lighting which cause shadows. When a cow balks, she often gets rewarded with a slap on the rump, yelled at or both. This, in turn, causes the animal to become even more frightened and resist moving forward.
  • Use curved chutes to improve cattle flow toward the treatment chute.
  • Instruct your employees on how to use the point of balance to move cows. (Please see the illustration on page 39.)
  • Never give an animal a shot while in the milking parlor. The same holds true for cows in a tie-stall or stanchion barn. Always move the cow to another stall for treatment, and then return her to her own stall.

Signs of good animal handling

Research has shown that fearful animals are less productive animals. Jeffrey Rushen, cattle behavior and stress physiologist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Center in Quebec, Canada, lists three quick tests you can use to rate the level of fearfulness of animals on your farm.

1. Walk into a pen of animals and stand still. Do the animals stay where they are or even come up to sniff you? If so, your animals tend to be comfortable around people and have a smaller flight zone. (The flight zone is an animal's personal space or comfort zone. An average flight zone is 5 feet.) Both are indications of good animal handling.

2. After the cows have been fed, walk through the feed alley in front of them. Do they continue eating? Or, do they stop and back away from the feed manger. When animals continue eating, that indicates a low level of fearfulness.

3. Walk through the barn when cows are lying down. Do they stay lying in their stalls? Or, do they get up as you approach? Animals that stay lying down are contented cows with a low level of fearfulness.

Follow these golden rules

When handling animals, at a minimum you should always use these guidelines:

  • Never yell, scream or whistle at animals.
  • Never use a cattle prod that delivers an electric shock.
  • Never strike an animal. All it takes to move her is a gentle tap or touch in the right area.
  • Avoid sudden movements.
  • Before working with an animal, always touch her before starting the procedure.

Avoid this common mistake

When moving a group of animals, if a cow stops and looks over her shoulder at you, what would you do? Most would run up to the cow to encourage her to keep moving. However, that's exactly the wrong response, says Temple Grandin, noted animal handling expert at Colorado State University. Moving toward the cow causes her to bolt and run past you, which often leads to injuries among both animals and humans.

The correct response is to stop and take a step back. When a cow looks over her shoulder at you she is telling you that you have gotten too close.