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Animal behavior expert shares the science behind low-stress handling with cattle

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is known for her work with animal behavior and trailblazing a path for knowledge regarding autism.  

Grandin has spent her life trying to understand her own autistic mind, and it is her understanding of the human mind which has helped her understand animal behavior.  

She has designed livestock handling facilities which are located in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries. 

Almost half of all cattle in North America are handled in Grandin’s center track restrainer system, specially designed for meat plants. 

Grandin has also developed a scoring system used to assess producers’ handling practices.  

Cattle handling systems 

Many producers fail to have corrals set up to help cattle travel more naturally, Grandin notes. Corrals designed by Grandin are built with curved races, and some feature curved squeeze chutes. 

The idea behind curved races is cattle have a tendency to return to where they came from. Due to this, cattle work through curved allys better than straight ones as the curves mimic cattle’s natural behavior.  

Throughout the years, Grandin has designed handling systems for large and small producers, along with feedlot operations and loading chutes. 

Oftentimes, cattle are too flighty to be touched by humans while being worked. Cattle work better when there are solid sides on handling systems. According to Grandin, solid siding keeps distractions out of sight and leads to calmer cattle.  

Producers with cattle who can easily be led on halter don’t necessarily need to use these solid sides. However, if running both tame and wild cattle, it is recommended for producers to have curved races with solid sides on handling systems.  

According to Grandin, non-slip flooring is also important when handling cattle with as little stress as possible. It is almost impossible to quietly handle any livestock if they are slipping and falling. Usually, cattle will panic when they slip, and continually slipping can put cattle in a constant agitated state, impacting the ease of work.  

Stress affects meat quality 

Additionally, stress can affect meat quality in several ways. 

Dark, firm and dry (DFD) cut meat is caused by depleted glycogen throughout muscles and stress of the animal. Fluctuating temperatures, excessive use of growth hormones, genetics and rough handling can all contribute to DFD. It is also important to note, bulls often make up more of the dark cutting meat than heifers, cows or steers. 

To prevent DFD, Grandin recommends producers don’t mix cattle together prior to slaughter as fighting can increase the potential for dark cutting. Handling animals quietly and eliminating the use of hot shots, unloading cattle trucks promptly and not holding cattle in stockyards overnight can also help to prevent DFD. 

Good handling practices can also help lower cattle stress, resulting in better meat quality. Producers should only move small herds of cattle, not overcrowd a pen and install non-slip flooring to help keep cattle calm. It is also beneficial to understand the basic concepts of flight zones and points of balance. Producers should keep in mind calm and quiet cattle move easier. 

Cattle need adequate space in feedlot pens, Grandin notes. Stockyards and packing plants should have enough capacity so animals can promptly be unloaded off trucks. Heat tends to build up rapidly in a stationary cattle pot. A feedlot should have large and small pens due to weather conditions, animal sizes and varying holding times.  

Guidelines state 20 square feet should be available for each 1,200 pound steer or heifer. These stocking rates provide enough room for working when animals are moved out of the pen. If cattle are in the pen tightly, it can be more difficult for producers to empty the pen. 

Information for this article was sourced from Dr. Temple Grandin’s website. For more information, visit 

           Madi Slaymaker is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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