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Calmer, healthier livestock: Noffsinger emphasizes low-stress cattle handling

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – To protect the agriculture industry for tomorrow’s generation of farmers and ranchers, Tom Noffsinger, a veterinarian from Benkelman, Neb., says low-stress cattle handling is important for increasing production.
    “The caregiver has an impact on performance,” said Noffsinger at the Integrated Range Management Symposium in Laramie on May 7, which was hosted by the UW Range Club. “We need to understand they’re prey animals to their predators, and utilize these things to promote health and performance. We’ve really got to pay attention.”
The benefits
    Noffsinger explained that, as vaccine prices and quality increase, it is logical that the efficiency of vaccines should increase and death loss should decrease, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
    “If you look at the surveys, death loss is 40 percent above what it was 10 years ago,” he said. “I got discouraged about the fact that our products didn’t turn into better management.”
    He also explained that a research study by Lonnie Bryant from 1999 showed that cattle not treated in a feedlot hospital exhibited more lung lesions as compared to those cattle that were sick.
    “Those cattle did not trust their caregivers enough to indicate they were sick,” said Noffsinger. “Our current handling ability has caused cattle to hide their true state of health.”
    “The human resource is so important,” he added, noting that vaccines and antibiotics don’t change from animal to animal, and rather, it’s the people handling them that do.
    Under low-stress conditions, cattle are able to utilize vaccines, gain weight and conceive easily, all of which increase profitability.
    He said, “When you see bad videos, they are always an example of inappropriate handling, and things that people are doing because they don’t understand their job or they are being asked to do things they shouldn’t.”
Low stress handling
    Noffsinger noted that having enough space for cattle, being calm and quiet, and moving with the correct angles, distance and position are all important. Particularly in times of high stress, he adds that it is possible to work cattle in such a way that they continue to gain, even during times of weaning and branding.
    “It is all contingent on the idea that they exhibit normal behavior. If we keep the animals free from anxiety, fear, pain and distress, the rest will take care of itself,” he added.
    When cattle get sick, Noffsinger mentioned it is usually from bacteria that are inherent in their systems, which opportunistically cause disease when cattle are stressed. By building trust with animals, cattle will eat, drink and rest normally, keeping them healthy.
    “We can fix all the psychological stresses by acclimating them properly,” said Noffsinger. “Our dream is to create voluntary cattle. We want cattle to belong where we put them, and to do that, we have to train them.”
    To train cattle to do what you want them to, Noffsinger said it is sometimes necessary to avoid human instincts.  
Canine instincts
    Noffsinger noted that the best examples for how to work cattle in a low stress environment are working dogs.
    “It is pretty evident that a kelpie or Border collie knows what he is doing by instinct,” he explained. “The kelpie knows how to do it. He stops in front of the cattle, goes by the heifers on the left side, and they keep moving. It is really better to work from the front.”
    When handlers are behind the cattle, the animals try to look at them, rather than move forward willingly.
    Noffsinger added that moving parallel to cattle in the same direction stops the animals, while moving in the opposite direction will speed them up.
    When pressuring cattle, it is also important to use 45-degree angles, and to reward them for movement by releasing the pressure. As a result, cattle move effectively and are not overwhelmed by stress.
    “If you want animals to go left, you come right, and the minute they do something right, back off,” Noffsinger explained. “Everything my dog does has a purpose. It’s all instinct for them.”
    He also added that cattle are incredibly sensitive animals that recognize even the smallest changes. In the event that you make a mistake, or cattle don’t do what you want them to, the best solution is to stop and think.
    “If cattle don’t go where you want them to go,” Noffsinger said, “you haven’t asked them correctly.”
Understanding cattle
    “The biggest stress is a change of address,” remarked Noffsinger. “It is important that we greet new arrivals and that we demonstrate that we know how to communicate with cattle, so they will be honest with us about how they feel.”
    He also noted that cattle aren’t vocal animals, so it is important to remove the human voice from handling. Understanding how cattle see is also important.
    “Their pupil shape is different, and the eyes are on the side of the head,” said Noffsinger. “When their head is up, they have about 275-degree vision. They can’t see straight behind or right between their eyes. They also have great peripheral vision, but no depth perception.”    
    As a result, standing behind cattle or standing incredibly still around them is disconcerting for the animals. With only a slight swaying motion, it is possible to make cattle feel more comfortable.
    By just moving slightly past the eye, handlers can influence cattle to move forward.
    “They want to travel with their heads straight and they like to go straight,” he added, “so when she can’t see me, she will pause. Give her time to see you.”
    “The point of the eye is key to this whole technique,” Noffsinger mentioned. “Cattle need or crave to see what is pressuring them, and they need to see where to go.”
Making the change
    “The only downside to learning this is if two or three people decide they will get better and learn it – it is important that everyone in the operation try to achieve,” said Noffsinger. “If someone doesn’t understand or want to be a part, it is frustrating to the people trying to go forward.”
    Because of the value of cattle and the inputs used in production, Noffsinger said understanding how cattle feel and utilizing low-stress handling can result in calmer cattle and higher rates of gain.
    “I think tradition is a wonderful thing, if it works, but there are some things that we need to throw away,” he said. “When you look at some of the great horse trainers like Tom Dorrance or Buck Brannaman, and you see a horse that is working because he wants to, not because he has to, that is amazing. Cattle are the same way.”
    To learn more about low-stress cattle handling, Noffsinger recommends Steve Cote’s book “Stockmanship.” Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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