Animal Science Department


Date of this Version

December 1999


Published for Proceedings, The Range Beef Cow Symposium XVI December 14, 15 and 16, 1999 - Greeley, Colorado.


An understanding of animal psychology combined with well designed facilities will reduce stress on both you and your cattle. Reducing stress is important because stress reduces the ability to fight disease and weight gain. The principles discussed in this book apply to all types of grazing animals. Stress increases weight loss, damages rumen function, and can interfere with reproduction.

An animal's previous experiences will affect its stress reaction to handling. Cattle have long memories. Animals which have been handled roughly will be more stresses and difficult to handle in the future. Animals which are handled gently and have become accustomed to handling procedures will have very little stress when handled. The basic principle is to prevent cattle from becoming excited. Cattle can become excited in just a few seconds, but it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the heart rate to return to normal in severely agitated cattle.

There is an old saying "You can tell what kind of a stock man a person is by looking at the behavior of his cattle." In one feedlot survey, cattle form yards which had a reputation for rough handling were wilder and more difficult to handle at the packer. They also had more bruises and dark cutters. The degree of stress which will be induced by handling and restraint can vary from almost no stress in a tame show animal to very severe stress in a wild range cow. The degree of stress is determined by three major factors -- 1) amount of contact with people, 2) quality of handling (rough vs. gentle) and 3) genetics. Frequent, gentle handling will reduce stress. Genetics is also an important factor. Some genetic lines of cattle are calmer and less likely to panic than others. Cattle with an excitable temperament will take longer to respond positively to gentle handling than cattle with a calm temperament. Most cattle will become less stressed and settle down when they are handled gently. However, there are a few individuals with a bad temperament that may never settle down and are dangerous to restrain and handle. Culling them is often advisable.

Although painful procedures cannot be avoided, a reduction of agitation and excitement will still reduce stress. Cattle remember painful restraint methods such as nose tongs. Handling will be easier in the future if you use a halter to hold the heads and keep electric prod usage to an absolute minimum. If tail twisting has to be used to move a cow up a chute, let go of the tail when the cow makes one step forward to reward her for moving. The tail must be released the instant the cow steps forward, otherwise she will not make the association. Breeding cattle will quickly learn to move when their tail is touched. Timing is very important when using the principle of pressure and release. This principle is used in many situations where cattle, horses and other animals are handled and trained. If an animal is being taught to lead, one should let up and stop pulling when the animal takes one step forward. The principle is to give relief to reward the animal when it does what you want. When the horse stops, you should stop pulling on the bridle.