When it comes to tweaking cow performance, producers often look to their nutritionist or veterinarian. However, the changes that lead to improved cow performance don’t always come in a syringe or a new ration. They come from improved management.

For instance, by improving their animal handling practices, feedlot managers in the beef industry are commonly rewarded with improved rates of gain and animals that spend less time off feed after having been moved.

It’s time for the dairy industry to learn those same lessons. Several research studies with dairy cattle have repeatedly delivered the same message — fearful animals are less productive animals, says Temple Grandin, assistant professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University.

Here’s a sampling of the research.

  • Jeff Rushen, University of Quebec, found that dairy cows have just as much stress when yelled at as when zapped with a prod that delivers a shock called a “hot shot.”
  • Joe Stookey, University of Saskatchewan, found that yelling or whistling at cows raised their heart rates more than slamming gates.
  • Jack Albright, retired professor of animal behavior from Purdue University, demonstrated that dairy cattle with small flight zones have the best milk production. A small flight zone means the animal is not afraid of people and therefore has been handled well.

And that’s just the starting point.

Research conducted in 1986 by Martin Seabrook, animal psychologist at the University of Nottingham in England, showed that cows handled in a calm, quiet manner produced 1,488 more pounds of milk per year than cows handled in a rough manner. At $12 milk, that’s a difference of $178 per cow per year.

In addition to increased milk production, improved animal handling can help reduce the health cost of animals, increase the rate of gain in heifers, and reduce employee accidents on farm.

The message is clear — animals thrive when handled in a quiet, calm, safe manner. Perhaps it’s time to evaluate the animal handling procedures used on your dairy.

To learn how to evaluate animal handling procedures in your parlor, be sure to read “Score your cows’ behavior in the parlor” in next month’s issue of Dairy Herd Management.