When working with prey species, such as occurs with most farming practises, it is very important to recognise that those species have an evolutionary need to protect themselves from potential predators.
If handled gently and patiently, domesticated prey species such as cattle, can habituate to their handlers and facilities so that they become less fearful. The more the cattle come into contact with humans that are not threatening to them, the more they become comfortable with people in the vicinity.
A good example is a dairy cow who will have people come up to her and pat her, whereas most beef cows will move away if a person approaches. A dairy cow who is handled gently twice a day for her milking career has repeated episodes of friendly contact with people. Those people are associated with the cow feeling relief from the discomfort she felt in her full udder. A beef cow on the other hand, happily lives in the paddock and only has contact with people when a procedure is necessary. Procedures such as a vaccination, pregnancy testing, artificial insemination, veterinary procedures or removal of her calf at weaning are unlikely to be welcomed by the beef cow!
Having animals that are less fearful when handled is highly beneficial from an animal welfare perspective and also beneficial for handler safety. Anybody working closely with animals is at higher risk when those animals are fearful.
Fearful animals engage fight and flight responses and are reactive and less predictable. If handlers need to get close to the animals, those animals cannot engage their flight response: they feel cornered and may therefore react with their fight response. They are more likely to kick, charge, butt, ram or stampede as a result of their fear.
From an economic perspective, animals that are generally calmer can put on more condition and grow more meat. The stress hormone cortisol, is catabolic: it breaks down body tissues to make glucose so that an animal can respond to danger. Chronic, prolonged stress can occur in animals that are of more flighty disposition.
Anxiety problems can affect the brain of an animal such that there is decreased regulation of the stress hormone even at times that would not usually cause stress. Cortisol levels can remain elevated and animals are more reactive and less able to calm down. A flighty temperament may indicate an anxious animal.
Temperament can be affected by genetic predisposition as well as experiences, especially experiences when and animal is very young. To help an animal be less predisposed to being flighty later in life, it helps for producers to breed from calmer temperament animals and to handle animals patiently and gently.
Stress through rough handling can affect a growing foetus inside an animal so gentle handling of pregnant cows is important to help produce calves that are of calm temperament.
The early experiences of animals can affect how they cope with stressful situations later in life. Gentle handling is important from an early age so that people who will work with these animals in the future can help the animals learn not to be so fearful. Prey animals will generally retain some level of fear but gentle handling habituates these animals enough such that routine procedures can be tolerated without the animals becoming distressed.
Working with cattle patiently and gently means that they are more likely to respond rationally. They will tolerate closeness if it is necessary and they will move slowly and deliberately, as a herd. Their movements are predictable to the handler and their body language helps convey what they will do. Their comfort in the situation can be maintained to an optimum as the handler responds to the signals they give.
As well as a patient and gentle approach to animals we farm, it is important to utilise good quality equipment to help reduce confusion, improve flow and shorten the time that extensively farmed animals are held in smaller pens.
The production of breeding animals for a cattle stud is a detailed science. Genetic information from the progeny of breeding cows and bulls provide data to indicate the possible characteristics that animal may provide to any future offspring, ie. any data obtained from progeny affects the value that the cow or bull can offer for specific characteristics in future offspring. That value is called the estimated breeding value (or EBV). For example, characteristics such as low birthweight and high growth rate are characteristics many commercial producer may look for in a breeding animal so that the genetics of the breeding pair are less likely to result in calving difficulties. There are many other traits that are important, especially when working to produce healthy breeding animals that provide a premium product for a variety of domestic and international markets.
Stud producers need to provide the birthweight of every calf born to stud animals. Once they measure the birthweight, they must also ear tag the calf that has been weighed, so that it can be permanently identified. The weight needs to be measured within the first twenty-four hours after birth for the information to be relevant as a birth weight that can affect the parents’ EBVs.
It is particularly distressing for the mother of a newborn to have her newborn handled in any way. Even the most docile of mothers can become aggressive and dangerous in an effort to protect their calves. It is a hormonal response and it is an evolutionary benefit for the species.
In the video below, the handler uses equipment to make the weighing of the calf as expedient as possible. He also uses the equipment to maintain safety for himself and a quick means of escape. He is aware of the mother throughout the procedure and gains the weight from the scales after allowing the calf to return to its mother.
The cow was not bred on that farm but had good temperament on introduction and has always been handled gently and patiently since arrival on the farm about two years previously. She was mildly hungry when this procedure was carried out because her feed is rationed in late pregnancy. Rationing feed is necessary to make sure her foetal calf does not grow too big and she is not too fat, allowing for an easier birth. Rationing also assists her metabolically: She responds better to the abundance of feed she will have now that she starts lactating rather than drawing on fat reserves. During this procedure, the producer can utilise her hunger by offering her feed to help her tolerate his work. He makes sure he does not get in between the mother and her calf and she can see and approach the calf if she wishes. The calf is made as comfortable as possible by using equipment made for the purpose, and the procedure is over and the calf with its mother before there is significant distress.
With such a smoothly run procedure, this cow is also much less likely to be concerned on subsequent occasions. Cows prefer to be away from the herd with their newborn calf: being calm and expedient allowed the job to be done without her calling to the rest of the herd in distress. Had the herd arrived, the job would have been impossible and she would have lost her hay to the other cows.