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How to Handle Cattle

3-1 cattle

Cattle are very skittish creatures. They will get nervous or stressed when something new is added into their environment. For this reason, when you need to move or handle them, you must be aware of the face that this could be a stressful process for the animal.

One of the best things to do is to train your herd to come when it is called, whether with voice, bell, or other noise making object. This eliminates a big part of moving the cattle if they already start in an area close to you. Once they are gathered, take small groups of cattle and start moving them.

Animals are influenced to move when a farmer steps into their flight zone. The flight zone is the distance an animal puts between itself and an “unknown” (human, animal, or otherwise) where they feel comfortable. The animals are often facing and watching the unknown. Completely tame cows won’t have a flight zone; they will allow themselves to be led where they are wanted to go. However, some cattle need a bit more convincing. Cows have a blind spot directly behind them. Because of the placement of their eyes on their head, they have great peripheral vision. The best place to stand to start “putting pressure” on the animal’s flight zone is to their side, by the shoulder. That way they can see you, but are not able to directly kick or buck at you. If you stand directly behind her, in the blind spot, she’ll turn to get a better look at the person, which means they will move their body the opposite direction of where you want them to go.

The most successful method for handling cattle is to stand in their flight zone, to the side, and take a small, quiet step toward her. When she moves, back up a step to give her space to relax and adjust, then creep in again with another step. Once she turns in the direction you want her to travel, you can start encouraging her forward. Remember to handle cows slowly and quietly. Any extra noises may upset or agitate the cattle, meaning they will become much more difficult to handle. If handling cattle in a pen or tub, only fill the area with half the animals you typically would. This gives the animal plenty of room to walk around or turn if needed.

A fully agitated cattle’s heart rate can take up to 20 minutes to return to normal. It is important to keep this in mind no matter where you are moving your herd. Early signs of an agitated animal include a swishing tail that gets progressively faster, seeing the whites of their eyes, or raising their heads up. If you cross the line where the animal gets upset, then they will start bucking or kicking.

The best thing to do is to try and train your herd early. Teach them they must be quiet and still before they will get fed. Have their first experience with a new situation (ie: leading them to a chute) be no pressure, and perhaps even get rewarded with food or a treat. The animal will then associate that experience positively, and they will be more comfortable with it when it happens in the future.


Grandin, Temple. “Recommended Basic Livestock Handling.”

Nickel, Raylene. “Handling Cattle Quietly and Strategically.” Sucessful Farming

Winter Illness in the Herd

2-22 Illness

Cows, like any other mammal, can get sick. Winter is a challenging season for livestock, and it is important to keep your herd healthy and well taken care of. As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, cows need to have well ventilated housing, substantial bedding to keep warm, windbreaks for out in the field, ample food and water supply to keep energy up, good flooring to prevent slippage, and extra care and protective treatments for their teats. Cold temperatures or poor conditions can stress cows out, which lowers their immune system, making them more apt to be sick.

Pneumonia – Both viral and bacterial pneumonia are very common. Old, weak, or new calves can develop pneumonia suddenly. Symptoms include rapid breathing, crackly lungs, no appetite, and a fever. Keeping cattle well ventilated and dry can help prevent pneumonia. It may also be worth looking into vaccinating cattle with a pneumonia specific treatment in the fall to prevent illness from even starting. Once an animal has pneumonia, they will need treatment and vet care. Treatment will need to happen quickly to prevent possible permanent lung damage.

Winter Dysentery – Caused by the coronavirus, winter dysentery is an illness that can quickly run rampant through your herd if not caught quickly. The most common route of infection is through contaminated feed or water. This could be due to poor or dirty living conditions, or even from employees wearing dirty boots and bringing bacteria into the barn. Keep bedding clean and fresh, and have employees rinse of their boots when they exit the barn to prevent the spread. Winter Dysentery makes cattle have runny diarrhea, often green or black in color, sometimes with fresh blood in it. Animals will maintain their appetite, but will stay sick anywhere from 3 days to a week. If the disease is allowed to spread (isolating the sick animal(s) is recommended) it can take up to 2 weeks to spread through the entire herd.

Winter Pinkeye – While pinkeye occurs more frequently in the summer, it is still an issue in winter. Due to the close proximity of cattle during feeding and watering in the barn, the disease is able to spread very quickly. Animals that have previously had pinkeye are typically carriers, and can pass the bacteria through nasal secretions. Animals’ eyes get itchy turn pink and sometimes cloudy if the ulcer is allowed to grow. Be sure to determine if the animal actually has pinkeye or IBR (Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis), as the two often have similar symptoms.


Don’t Let Winter Dysentery Put a Freeze on You’re Herd’s Milk Production.” Alltech.

Gingrich, Fred. “Pneumonia in Dairy Calves.” Dairy Herd Management

Holley, Stephanie. “Caring for Dairy Cows During Cold Winter Months.” Off The Grid News

Whittier, W. Dee. “Winter Pinkeye in Cattle.” Virginia Cooperative Extension

Beef Cattle Adapting to Motherhood

2-15 Motherhood

While motherhood is a natural thing for cows, sometimes it does not always come so easy. New heifer mothers or young cows sometimes don’t understand the responsibility they have to their calf, or else want nothing to do with it.

Hormones, mainly oxytocin, play a huge role in the heifer and cow mothering experience. When they start the labor process, their hormones release that make the mother more open and susceptible to bonding with a calf, and also start their milk production.

If there is an issue with the calving process, a hard labor, needing a C-section, or having to help pull the calf out, the mother may be less adamant to bond with her calf. For one, if the birth wasn’t natural, there may not have been enough time for the hormones to release. If it was stressful, other hormones such as adrenaline and stress hormones may override the oxytocin. Also, she may see the birthing experience as a very negative one and will be less apt to enjoy the fruits of her labor. If you are able to observe or assist with the calving experience, it is more likely the mother (especially a new one) will have a smoother, more positive experience. If the calf comes out and appears weak, isn’t moving much, or there is a medical issue the mother is able to sense, she may be more likely to reject he calf.

Other heifers find motherhood comes very naturally. Through instinct and observing other cows and how they interact with their calves, new moms understand that they need to clean and feed their new little one.

Some reluctant mothers eventually come around once their milk lets down. They realize they are in need of a calf to take care of, and will be a lot more receptive to bond and feed their calf. Calves should ideally be suckling within 2-5 hours from birth, after they’ve been cleaned by their mother. The cleaning processes allow the mom the smell and learn her calf’s scent, as well as bond and start a relationship with her calf.

Some new mothers are aggressive towards their new calve and kick or attack them. They are being protective of their new baby, but focusing their aggression towards the wrong thing. This confusion will hopefully settle after some time. Keep an aggressive mother in a pen separated, but next to, her calf so they can get to know each other. Restrain the mother and assist the calf with a few feedings. Hopefully, after a couple feedings the mother will start to bond and accept her calf.

At times, there is nothing you can do to help a mother accept her calf. In this case, if possible, try to have another mother “adopt” the rejected calf. This can be a tricky process. If the adoptive mother’s calf died, smear some of the birth mucus on rejected calf so she thinks it’s her own. Sometimes putting honey on the calf to encourage licking works, or some sort of product needs to be put on the mother’s snout to confuse smells. Putting the hide of the mother’s dead calf on the rejected calf can also help the mother accept this new calf.


Thomas, Heather Smith. “Maternal Behaviour in Cows.” Canadian Cattlemen

Thomas, Heather Smith. “Essential Guide to Calving.” Storey Publishing, 2008. Print.