If you could get a 10 percent increase in milk production without an increase in your expenses, would you do it? For most producers, the answer would be an immediate "yes."

The solution may be to improve animal handling. A growing body of research shows that fearful animals are less productive animals, says Temple Grandin, assistant professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University. Fear of humans leads to an increase in animal stress. And this increase in stress, as measured by cortisol levels, directly influences milk production, growth rates, health and even the propensity of a cow to kick in the parlor.

While it's difficult to put a number on the exact return you'll receive, research indicates that negative animal handling can decrease milk production by 10 percent. In a herd giving 70 pounds of milk per day, that's a loss of 7 pounds per cow per day. At $13 milk, losses quickly mount to $27.30 per cow per month. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the losses that often go unaccounted for in terms of decreased rates of gain and increased rates of illness. Bottom line: Animal handling practices that increase animal stress can take a bite out of your profits.

Research shows the payoff

Granted, most producers have protocols in place for animal handling, or their employees have a basic understanding of what will be tolerated. But when it comes to a definition of good animal handling it must go beyond simply eliminating the use of a hot shot - a device that delivers a small electrical shock when touched to an animal, says Jeffrey Rushen, cattle behavior and stress physiologist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Center in Quebec, Canada. After all, research conducted by Rushen shows that cows perceive yelling to be just as stressful as being prodded with a hot shot. And research conducted at the University of Saskatchewan showed that yelling and whistling raised cows' heart rates more than loudly slamming gates.

In the beef industry, researchers demonstrated again and again that calm animals have higher rates of gain. And feedlot managers who have made improvements in animal handling have been rewarded with increased rates of gain and animals that spend less time off feed after being moved.

It's time for the dairy industry to learn those same lessons. Here's what researchers have discovered so far:

  • Australian researcher Paul Hemsworth studied 14 dairy farms to determine if differences in the level of cow fearfulness had an effect on milk production. He determined that 30 percent to 50 percent of the variance in milk production between herds could be attributed to the difference in the level of fear that cows showed toward their human handlers.
  • Australian researcher Kate Breuer found that first-calf heifers that were hit, or otherwise rushed into and out of the milking parlor, produced 3 pounds less milk per day than their gently handled counterparts. In addition, the heifers that received the negative handling lost 30 more pounds of weight during the first 8 weeks of lactation and had a higher incidence of lameness than their herd counterparts.
  • New Zealand researcher Neil Chesterton found that the level of impatience demonstrated by the stockman when moving animals was one of the single most important factors for determining lameness in cattle. In short, he found the more impatient the person working the cattle, the higher the incidence of subsequent lameness.
  • Another study by Hemsworth evaluated the effect of giving heifers extra handling at the time of first calving. Heifers that were handled in a calm and patient manner had a substantially reduced "flinch-step-kick" response in the parlor. During udder prep, the incidence was reduced by 40 to 50 percent, and during milk letdown the incidence was 75 percent less than herdmates.
  • Jack Albright, retired professor of animal behavior from Purdue University, demonstrated that dairy cattle with small flight zones produce more milk than cows with large flight zones. An animal's flight zone is its personal space or comfort zone around humans. Animals with a small flight zone allow humans closer contact, or do not back away immediately when approached by people. Animals with a large flight zone quickly back away from human contact and are often called "skittish."
  • Martin Seabrook, animal psychologist at the University of Nottingham in England, compared milk production of cows handled in a calm and gentle manner while being milked versus those handled in a rough manner during milking. Cows that received the gentle treatment produced 1,488 pounds more milk per year than their herdmates. At $13 milk, that's a difference of $193 per cow per year.
  • A similar study completed by Rushen also compared rough handling and gentle handling, and, more specifically, whether cows could differentiate between each of the handlers. In the study, neither the aversive handler nor the gentle handler was milking the cows when milk production was measured; they were merely present in the parlor. But just the presence of the aversive handler in the parlor reduced milk production by 10 percent. The reduction in milk yield was from a doubling of residual milk - the cows did not let down all of their milk. In addition, udder prep time was increased due to more movement from the cows.

The research is clear. Poor animal handling cuts profits.

If, for example, you have ever tweaked the ration and been disappointed by the milk production results, chances are an underlying animal handling problem undermined your opportunity for success.

Good animal handling - the type that does not increase animal stress - does not mean treating cows as house pets, explains Rushen. But it does mean developing a system where animals are used to being handled and do not have a fear response to people.