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When youth work with dairy cattle, remember safety first

TAGS: Safety
Fran O’Leary Youth showing cattle in arena
CALM AND CONSISTENT: Cattle respond best to calm and consistent handling practices. Avoid loud noises. Let the animal know you are there by gently touching their front or side.
Dairy Program: Be prepared for unpredictable behavior when working cattle.

The best compliment a parent can have is when their children follow in their footsteps. The child’s desire may be to pitch in on daily chores around the farm or work with animals in preparation for a show. This partnership between a parent and child can be extremely fun and rewarding. However, certain handling techniques and safety practices should be followed. Best practice is to train the youth in the hazards of working with dairy cattle. Safety is key!

The following are a few guidelines to review with youth to ensure a safe workplace and lower their risk of injury when working with dairy cattle:

Review hazards. Evaluate the workplace for potential hazards and take steps to minimize them. For example, consider potential injuries due to slips and falls, chemical exposure, entanglement in machinery (fans, crowd gates), and places where one could be pinched or crushed between animals or gates. The dangers of zoonotic diseases (ringworm, tuberculosis, salmonella) should also be considered. Take steps to mitigate the risks.

Review the hazards associated with performing animal health care (all treatments, oral, pour on, injections, foot care, etc.). Youth should work with professionals or parents to gain the skills necessary before attempting to do these tasks. Train and oversee youth’s administration of animal health products and require a knowledge quiz to determine their level of understanding. Youth for Quality Care of Animals at offers a great training on animal ID, reading of labels, administering of health products and proper record keeping.

Understand dairy cattle behavior. Temple Grandin, the well-known specialist on animal behavior, sums it up best when she said, “Understanding the behavior of animals helps prevent injuries to both people and animals.”

Cattle respond best to calm and consistent handling practices. Avoid loud noises. Let the animal know you are there by gently touching their front or side. Animals that have had bad experiences when handled in the past will be fearful and harder to control. Frightful animals present a safety hazard to the handler, so we want to promote calming behavior. If we want our cattle to be calm we need to work with them calmly and correctly.

Be mindful of flight zone. Cattle are prey animals and have evolved behavioral mechanisms to protect themselves from predators. One behavioral mechanism is called the “flight zone,” and cattle use this behavior to keep a safe distance from anything they perceive as a threat.

Animals want to see you. They will turn and face the handler who is in the flight (or pressure zone), located just outside of the edge of the flight zone. Upon entering the flight zone, you will notice the animals moving away from the handler. They will continue to move away until they feel safe. If the handler retreats, the animal will usually stop moving away.

How you move and stop within the flight zone will determine how effectively you move the animal to your desired destination. Be mindful that flight zones vary from animal to animal. The following are factors which affect the size of an animal’s flight zone:

  • handler’s angle of approach
  • speed of handler’s approach
  • animal’s familiarity with the handler
  • sound or visual contact with the handler
  • temperament of the animal
  • prior good or bad experiences

 Flight zone diagram showing the correct position for a handler to move an animal.

Understand point of balance. The animal’s shoulder is usually the point of balance, and your position in relation to the shoulder should be used to move animals forward or backward. When the animal is free to turn away from the handler (not in a chute or narrow alley), the animal will move forward when the handler approaches the animal from behind the point of balance.

Approaching the animal in front of the point of balance will move the animal backward. Determine which direction you wish the animal to move and slowly position yourself according to their shoulder. If the animal balks, access the situation to determine the cause and adjust your position or impediments in their line of sight.

Cattle’s eyes are located on the sides of their heads enabling them to have a wide field of vision. They can look backward without moving their heads; however, they have a blind spot directly behind them. Do not approach cattle from their blind spot. While working from behind, best practice is to move from side to side, remaining outside of the blind spot, while slowly pressuring them forward. By doing this, the animal will think there are multiple people behind them.

At all times, be prepared for unpredictable behavior. Even well-handled animals can become fearful of changing surroundings. All of all these pose dangers: shadows, loud noises, wind, sickness or injury, as well as fresh cows, dairy bulls, and cows or heifers in heat. Having an escape route planned when working with cattle is vital for your safety.

By putting safety first, families will remain safe and youth will enjoy working with cattle to gain valuable life skills and experiences.

Grotjan is the Outagamie County Extension dairy and livestock educator.

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