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Designing a new handling system with the cow firmly in mind


Understanding instinctive and learned behaviours exhibited by cows will help to inform design decisions when constructing a bespoke cattle handling system, according to Miriam Parker of Livestockwise.

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Mrs Parker urged farmers attending the Eblex-organised workshop to spend time and effort thinking about what their handling system would need to do. She said: “If you build a good system, it should last 30 years. It is a big investment so you should aim to future proof it.


Consider the essential functions you will need it to do and think about how it will work with any additional buildings you might wish to add.”


She pointed out design detail would vary for a system used mainly for handling suckler cows compared to one on a finishing unit because the tasks it was used for most frequently would differ.


“Any handling system should be thought of as consisting of three elements: the cow, the person and the hardware. We have to think about the main aspects of cow behaviour and how we can tap into them to our advantage.”


Mrs Parker said farmers should not underestimate the behavioural dynamic when handling cows. The hierarchy within the herd, or ‘bunt order’ should be taken into account as it could help the smooth running of the handling process.


Farmers should also be aware of a cow’s three instinctive responses to stress, Mrs Parker said.


“As a farmer, you will usually allow instinctive behaviours such as eating, sleeping, mating and drinking to take place in a herd. When you handle your cattle, you want to stop their instinctive behaviours of fright, flight and fight and this is the issue we are tackling.”


Top tips

  • Give consideration to each of the five individual components of a cattle handling system – the holding area, the crowd pen, the race, the crush and the exit
  • Ensure fences are a minimum of 1.5 metres (5ft) high but ideally 1.6m-1.8m (5ft 2in-5ft 9in)
  • The entrance to the race should be set at a maximum angle of no more than 30-degrees with a straight side to the crowd pen
  • Do not dead end the race as cows should be able to see and follow the animal in front
  • Match the number of cows in the race to the number in the crowd pen
  • Make sure the crush is suitable for the cows which will be handled in it and the operations which it will be used for most frequently
  • Safety must be paramount – always consider how people can get out of the way safely and easily

Capacity to learn

Mrs Parker believed ‘there is a capacity for cows to learn’ but this had not been tapped into as much as had been done with other animals such as horses and dogs.


“Learning based on place association is very important with cows and they will remember positive and negative experiences very strongly when in a certain area. So it is vital they have neutral experiences in the cattle handling system such as being weighed, as well as negative ones.”


The actions of the handler had a significant influence over a cow’s reaction to being handled, Mrs Parker added.


“If someone usually solicits a certain type of behaviour within the herd, such as the cows coming to them to be fed, then if they are to do something different in a handling situation, such as pushing the cows through the race, give them a yellow flag so cows can see a difference.”


Mrs Parker demonstrated how a cow’s eyesight influenced how it reacted to situations by placing glasses on the workshop participants which only allowed them to see a narrow range of view in front of them.


“You are dealing with half a tonne of animal with a sight disability. To see things properly, cows like to be in a relaxed position with their head level or low and walking at a slow pace. They cannot see the ground beneath them clearly and need to move their head from side to side to gain good peripheral vision.”


Recent research has shown cows have a clear preference to turn left handed, Mrs Parker said.


“From a study of 7,000 cows, almost 90 per cent will choose to turn to the left if confronted with a barrier or novel object. So if we opt to turn cows left handed in a handling facility, we will make life easier for ourselves.”


After giving detailed consideration to the aspects of a cow’s senses and behaviour, the audience were asked to think about the five main components of a handling system.


“The big five are the holding area, the crowd pen, the race, the crush and the exit,” Mrs Parker explained.


“A light, airy location with enough space is an essential prerequisite for a cattle handling area. The floor should be a uniform surface which is non-slip and there should be no distractions on the floor which the cows will stop and look at.


“The more animals you are looking to contain in an area, the higher your fencing must be. The minimum height is 1.5 metres, but good practice is 1.6-1.8m and some agile cattle breeds can jump 2m.”


Race design

Race design

Careful design of the race should promote ‘following’ behaviour, Mrs Parker said, citing 30-degrees as the maximum angle for the race entrance with a straight side from the crowd pen.


“Cows should be able to see up the race and you must not dead end it. Do not try and cram animals into it as you need time to shut the race before cows try and back out or turn round. Match the number of cows in your crowd pen to the number in the race.”


Mrs Parker urged farmers to save as much money as possible for the crush.


“Ask yourself what operations you will be carrying out in the crush so you choose the right design. Self-locking crushes are workable with quiet cattle but may not be suitable for every system.”


Planning the best exit strategy so cows were moving in a direction they wanted to go in would make life easier, Mrs Parker said.


“Cows like to go back to the place where they came in. Moving them in the direction of light, or back towards the field or feeding area will encourage them to move forward.”


Safety should be the paramount concern and it was vital there were several options for individuals to get out quickly if required.


“Think about who will be working in your handling system and how mobile they are. You must also provide a protected working area for vets where they can complete paperwork,” Mrs Parker said.


She also stressed there were no shortcuts when designing the right handling system.


“People often think there is a piece of equipment which can solve the problem. In reality, it is not about the hardware, it is about the way we manage it.


“The best handling facilities are designed by people who have empathy with the cattle and invest time thinking about what will work most effectively for them.”


Cow hierarchy and cattle handling

  • Submissive cows are found on the outside of a group of cows and can move through the handling facility anywhere
  • Dominant cows are the fittest animals in the herd which have the highest reproductive success and are usually found in the centre of the herd. Dominant cows should move through the handling facility in the middle of the group. Bulls would also fall into this category
  • Leader cows will exhibit leadership behaviours and will seek out food, water, shelter and space for the rest of the herd. Leader cows should move through near the front of the herd
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