Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reducing Animal Stress: Thinking the Way Animals Do

By Judith M. Powell, Farming, August 2006

The end of the growing season means that the time has arrived to move livestock from pasture to marketing. Animals that have enjoyed the freedom of self-sufficient grazing over a long, pleasant season are inclined to not respond easily to producers who face the task of moving them. Since they haven't been bothered by people much, livestock are not hep on the idea of getting pushed along into a corral or truck. Wanting as little stress as possible and a safe delivery to market destination, producers approach handling calmly and gently, yet the moving and loading often turns out to be not so fun for either party.
Dr. Temple Grandin, Colorado State Associate professor of animal science, specializes in animal thinking and in visualizing the way that animals do. Grandin suggests that there are simple things producers should do that will make a tremendous difference in the handling experience. Her insight comes from spending decades watching animal behavior and in dissecting the situations that humans put animals though. Her focus study over 30 years provides valuable payoff to producers interested in minimizing animal and human stress. She has achieved a true specialty in understanding how loading beef, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses respond to situations humans create.
Grandin urges producers to look for signals that their animals see by "taking an animal's view of the world." Take your blinders off, she challenges, and start to think sensory - based, like you're an animal. Start by paying careful attention to the little details that seem unimportant to the handler, but are so important to the animals.
"Vision is a dominant trait of all grazing animals," Grandin explains, and an important key to self-protection. Handlers should be watchful and be aware.
She advises producers to be thoughtful about when to work animals. Pick a day that is overcast and avoid the shadows caused by a sunny day, she says, and look for sharp differences in contrasting light and shadows. "Scan your setups. Don't expect animals to move into chutes or buildings with blasts of sunlight pouring into their eyes from gaps in sidewalls. If you have separations where sunlight gets in, cover them and get rid of them. Don't expect animals to walk from shadows into a doorway filled with bright sun. Don't load at sunset or early morning, and don't ask animals to look directly into the sun. Rather, work in the middle of the day. Position chutes so that cattle are headed toward a neutral light at the end - a door opened with quiet natural light the animals will head toward," she says. Working at night is also a good idea, Grandin suggests. When the lights are on, animals are attracted to the building when they see light at an end point, and they'll move in toward the light.
Grandin suggests that chutes be designed so that there is never a dead end. "An animal must be able to see a place ahead to go toward, and the handler needs to move them quietly through. Watch their eyes and ears. Calm animals point their eyes and ears at something that concerns them. You want ears pointed forward and not back and down. Flat-backed ears signal scared or aggressive animals," she warns. In explaining what she terms "the startle response," Grandin is clear in saying not to threaten or challenge. “Keep a safe distance and don't try to dominate by staring directly into their gaze. Turn your head away and give them a break."
"Horses and cattle have poor depth perception," Grandin explains. Give the leaders time to put their head down to examine what's in their path, like a puddle. "A reflection on the ground looks like a shadow, and a shadow looks like a hole in the ground, so let them take the time to look, especially the leader," she says.
Because cattle, pigs and sheep are herd animals, isolation of a single individual should be avoided, she suggests. "Allow the livestock to follow the leader and do not rush them. If they bunch up, handlers should concentrate on moving the leaders instead of pushing from the rear. Use animals’ natural behavior to exert influence over the group," she explains.
Pay attention to what is around your chutes and buildings when you work the animals, and don't load them on gusty days. "Stuff blowing around is the worst distraction. Look around for things that move in the wind," she advises, like flags and flapping coats, and remove them. Don't move cattle near a highway where cars and trucks are going by, and keep the area quiet. "No dogs. And no bikes," she points out. "No bikes when you're loading. Did you ever wonder why your animals seem calm and trained at home, and then you take them to the fair and you can't do anything with them? Get them used to things they'll be faced with beforehand. Decorate the pasture with the stuff they'll see at the fair - balloons, loud music, people passing by, kids on bikes. Let them sniff and walk past this stuff when they're not confined and can flee, and have the kids ride by them on bikes," she says.
Grandin has designed livestock handling facilities across the nation and in Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. Her work appears in over 300 scientific journals and livestock periodicals. Her published research examines cattle temperament, environmental enrichment for pigs, reducing dark cutters and bruises in cattle, bull fertility, animal training procedures and effective stunning methods for cattle and pigs in meat plants. Her books include "Livestock Handling and Transport," "Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals," and "Animals in Translation," a New York Times best seller. Grandin describes how she processes information and learns visually as a person with autism, in her book "Thinking in Pictures." "When I put myself in a cow's place, I really have to be that cow and not a person in a cow costume," she writes. "A great deal of my success in working with animals comes from the simple fact that I see all kinds of connections between their behaviors and certain autistic behaviors. Being autistic has helped me to understand how they feel."
Excerpts from her research, as well as handling tips and chute and facility designs, are available at her web site,

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