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Keeping safety in mind before and during cattle work prevents accidents on the ranch

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Most cattle herds are gathered and worked for branding, vaccinating, pregnancy testing, weaning and other necessary management tasks. Many cowherds are put through the chute twice or more annually. It is important to make sure these cattle-working tasks are accomplished smoothly and safely, for health of the cattle and safety of the crew doing the job.

Nora Schrag, DVM at Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine, says the place to start is to walk through the facilities that will be used to hold, sort and restrain the cattle.

Pen systems

“Walk through them with two things in mind. Be thinking in terms of the people working around this facility, and take note of anything that might be dangerous to them. Many set-ups use pipes behind animals in the chute alleyway to keep them from backing up. Notice the way gates swings and the directions the levers go,” Schrag says.

“It depends on what kind of squeeze chute the rancher has. If they are standing in the wrong spot when an animal is released or their head is in the wrong place, the producer may get hurt. Ranchers need to make sure that they and their crew – whoever will be working there, especially if some are people who aren’t used to working around cattle or are new to the particular facility – know about the danger areas,” she adds.

Schrag encourages ranchers to point out places that crew members need to be aware of, such as levers that might get in the way or areas they can get into trouble.

  “Walking through the facility with these things in mind is very important,” she explains.

Animal’s perspective

“Also look at it from the point of view of the animal,” Schrag continues. “I always walk into the tub or down the chute alleyway looking for any nails that might be sticking out, bolts, flaps of tin hanging out that an animal could get caught on or anything they could put their foot through.”

“There might be something that was perfectly fine the last time we worked cattle but may not hold for today,” she says.

“Things change. These facilities are out in the weather, we use them, cattle bounce against things and sometimes it’s not very obvious where it broke the last time. Then an animal hits it again, and it’s very obvious,” Schrag says. “Pay attention to these things at the start, and the whole time we are working cattle. Keep facility functionality in mind.”

Handling for flow

It also pays to try to handle the cattle in the best possible way as they flow through the process.

“We might point out to the crew that a certain corner is a bit tight and they need to be careful as they go around it or not put too many through a certain gate at once. These things make a big difference. It’s a lot easier to prevent injuries than to fix them later,” Schrag says.

Keep human safety in mind when working cattle.

“If there’s just one person pushing cattle up and one person working at the chute, it’s not very complicated. But sometimes there might be several people doing things to make it go faster, and there are things that can make a difference in how likely we are to get poked with a needle or have some other kind of accident,” says Schrag.

“We need to be aware of every person and every animal around us. When we are refilling or holding a syringe, we should keep our elbows down at our sides. Then if someone walks past us, they’re not as likely to bump our elbows and move our hands,” she explains.

Handling and refilling syringes can lead to accidental needle pokes, and while most cattle vaccines aren’t dangerous to humans, some like blackleg can cause serious inflammatory reactions.

“Avoiding accidental needle pokes should be high priority. We need to keep our elbows at our sides,” she says.

Schrag also adds, “If someone is holding a bottle to refill the syringe, they should stick out one finger and touch their other arm for stability and steadiness. Then if someone bumps them, there’s no way the needle will jump into their hand. They should already have their hands locked together and braced.”

While working cattle

When working cattle, people are reaching through bars to vaccinate or apply medication. Depending on the facility, this may be easy and safe or it may be risky. The rancher and crew have to pay attention to what they are doing.

“Some general rules can keep us from getting hurt. Always reach over rather than through, when possible. If we are reaching through, be aware of what the animal is doing and be ready to pull back if the animal moves. Any time we can open a bar instead of reaching through it is preferable,” Schrag emphasizes

The animal may lunge or jump and catch a hand, wrist or arm between it and the bar.

“Even people who have been working around chutes for a long time sometimes get hurt. Anything we can do to minimize situations where our arms could get pinched will help,” she says.

Schrag encourages producers to think ahead to what might possibly happen, noting that it’s all about trying to predict those problems rather than helplessly watching them happen.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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