How Texas Longhorns See the World and Reducing the Stress of Handling
Understanding cattle is to the handler's advantage
by: Larry Smith II
When handling Texas Longhorns, our strategy should always be to accomplish our goals with as little stress as possible on our cattle. When we introduce stress onto our cattle due to improper handling, or a misunderstanding of how cattle view their surroundings, we are sending our cattle down a path that can be everlasting. It takes up to 30 minutes for the elevated bovine heart rate to return to normal and bruising, which is a by-product of stress and improper handling, currently costs the cattle industry more than $22 million per year. Stress reduces the ability to fight disease, reduces weight gain, increases shrink, damages rumen function, can interfere with reproduction, and of course, raises safety issues. It is without question that cattle have long memories and I believe any study would show Texas Longhorns to be on the upper end of bovine memory capacity. Texas Longhorn steers, such as Charles Goodnight's Ol Blue, are legendary for leading the great cattle drives up and down the trails numerous times. Texas Longhorns that have been handled improperly will use this memory retention to instigate difficulty in their future handling, while animals that are handled gently will become accustomed to handling procedures and will obviously experience a minimal amount of stress.
Wide-Angle (Panoramic) Vision
To understand how to handle cattle in a calm and stress free environment, we need to appreciate how the world appears through the eyes of our Texas Longhorns. Cattle possess what is classified as wide-angle, or panoramic, vision. For comparison, cattle enjoy panoramic vision of 300 degrees, while humans exhibit only 180 degrees. This 300-degree wide-angle vision gives cattle the ability to see behind themselves without turning their head except for a small "blind spot" (Diagram 1)directly behind their rear. Wide-angle vision allows a group of cattle, on the move, to maintain visual contact with each other, enabling the herd to stay together. One by-product of this wide-angle view of sight is that everything appears to be bent and distorted, especially at the periphery (away from the center). For example, a fence post to us will appear straight, but to cattle it will have a somewhat curved appearance.
The trade-off for superior wide-angle vision is the very poor depth perception cattle must contend with, especially while on the move with their heads up. Again for comparison, depth perception in humans tops the scale at 180 degrees, while cattle must endure a mere 60 degrees. This poor depth perception of only 60 degrees explains why cattle balk at shadows and strange objects on the ground until they have an opportunity to lower their head for a closer examination. To cattle, a shadow may appear as a deep hole that will require close inspection prior to crossing. Animals that are required to maintain their head up, such as when on halter, may have a tendency to spook at items that humans never question with their 180 degrees of depth perception.
Now that we have an understanding of how our cattle view the world, we will focus on how to handle them proficiently with as little stress as possible. Understanding the "flight zone," defined as a cattle's personal space, is the key to easy and quiet handling (Diagram 1). Simply put, when you penetrate the flight zone, the animal moves. When you retreat from the flight zone, the animal stops. The flight zone factor is shared by all species of animals, including humans. When someone, or something, invades our personal space, we attempt to remove ourselves until the invasion is no longer considered a threat. The size of the flight zone is determined by many factors in cattle: the temperament of the animals to begin with, the conditions (corral, pasture), the disposition and number of handlers, etc. just to name a few. Cattle can easily be moved by working on the edge of the flight zone. The handler must be close enough to the animal to make it move, but not so close as to cause it to panic and flee. If the cattle start moving too fast for what you desire, we simply back off and remove ourselves from the flight zone. To keep animals moving at a steady pace, alternately enter and retreat from the flight zone. Reward an animal who moves for you by relieving pressure on the flight zone, but in a few seconds invade the flight zone again to keep the flow moving. When cattle are worked in an enclosed space, such as an alley or pen, we must be careful to avoid deeply penetrating the flight zone because doing so can cause cattle to panic, jump fences, or turn back on you. Of course, removing yourself from this penetrated flight zone will relieve pressure.
Point of Balance
The movement of cattle is accomplished by addressing their point of balance (Diagram 1), generally defined as in line with their shoulder. To move an animal forward, you must be behind the point of balance. Obviously moving in front of the point of balance will make the animal go backwards. To start movement, approach the animal just behind the point of balance and move back into positions A and B. Always avoid getting into the blind spot as entering the blind spot will cause the cattle to stop, turn, and look at you as they want to know where you are at all times.
A herd of cattle is like a truck . . . before you can steer, the truck must be moving. Diagram 2 shows the handler movement pattern that will keep a herd moving in an orderly manner along a fence or in an open pasture. A single handler moving the animals should use the handler 2 position. As the herd moves, walk forward at an angle, which gradually relieves the pressure on the herd's collective flight zone. To maintain the movement, keep repeating the pattern. Practice will determine the length of each movement pattern.It is important to use this pattern because traveling parallel with the herd will have a tendency to cause splitting. When two people move a large herd, the lead handler should stay with the herd leader. The lead handler should stay just behind the leader's point of balance, bearing in and out of the flight zone. The instinct of cattle to follow will pull the tail-enders along even though the rear handler is somewhat ahead of the rear of the group. Approach a straggler at the point of balance (Diagram 3) and return to pattern 2 in Diagram 2 to continue moving the herd.
Working in Corrals
Diagram 4 illustrates the correct position for the lead handler as the cattle enter the corral. You can increase and decrease pressure on the flight zone by moving back and forth, straight into the herd. You must apply enough pressure to keep them from veering away from the fence, but not so much as to cause panic. When you move animals from a pen or corral, do not allow them to race out by working on the flight zone of the leaders. To empty the pen in a controlled manner, again move back and forth.
Tips for Handling Cattle
- All types of livestock will follow the leader, so use this natural instinct to your advantage. Identify the leaders and concentrate on moving them so the herd can follow.
- Remaining calm, having patience, and allowing plenty of time will assist you in becoming the master of gathering and handling your cattle.
- Remember how cattle view their surroundings. Spend as little time as possible in the blind spot to avoid being kicked, or upsetting the cattle, and be aware of what conditions may distress your animals due to their poor depth perception.
- Cattle will balk if they see a flapping or moving object. Before loading cattle, walk through the chute, or alley, and check along the animal's eye level for any obstructions that may spook or slow the movement.
- When possible, loading and squeeze chutes should be placed north and south to maximize sun angles and minimize shadows, which have a natural inclination to spook cattle. Livestock will balk if they have to look directly into the sun and many times a single shadow that falls across the path can disrupt movement.
- Cattle have a natural tendency to move towards light and will resist dark enclosures. If loading cattle at night, a frosted light inside the trailer positioned so it does not glare in their eyes can assist in attracting the cattle.
- For improved conception rates, cows should be handled as gently as possible for Artificial Insemination and not be allowed to become agitated or overheated. If possible, do not use the same chute for A.I. that you use for branding, injections, etc. As we discussed earlier concerning the lengthy memory retention of Texas Longhorns, the cow that does not associate the A.I. chute with pain will remain calmer thereby increase conception rate. The choice of how we handle our cattle is ours. If you prefer the wave of the red cape with the sound of ole' thrown in for good measure, very best wishes. Especially since cattle are color blind and the color red in the cape has no bearing on their performance. Texas Longhorns handled in a calm and efficient manner create a much more stress free environment, which is good for the cattle, good for us, and is certainly good for our reputation. Besides, is there not already enough stress in our world without adding more?
Michigan State University Extension, MSU Beef Bulletin 22960001,01/01/04
Acknowledgment Dr. Temple Grandin
About the Author
Larry Smith II resides in Glen Rose, Texas, where he has been involved with Texas Longhorns since 1977. Larry is on the Board of Directors of the ITLA, is an approved ITLA Judge, and is repeating as Show Chairman for the 2005 ITLA Convention and Championship Show.