My favorite blonde cowgirl spent a significant amount of time with me at the feed yard over Thanksgiving vacation. One morning, as we were asking a group of calves to build confidence walking past a handler in the corral area, a few of the animals spooked suddenly. Megan was not expecting it and “spooked” almost as much as the calves. After the cattle settled down, she looked at me and said:
“Mama, does your heart skip a beat when the cattle do that? Or, do you eventually get used to it enough that it doesn’t scare you?”
My answer to her:
“Yes.” (To both questions)
Cattle are big animals. There is not a bovine on my farm that is less than 5X my size and, just prior to slaughter, my animals can weigh close to 14X as much as I do. In the event of a physical battle, I would lose every time… We do almost all of our cattle handling on foot, so as handlers we must be smart in order to remain safe.
The aspect of human safety is often forgotten when cattle care is discussed in audiences outside of the farm. As a feed yard manager, it is always foremost in my mind as I care about my crew and want them to always be safe. I also serve as one of our primary cattle handlers so I have an additional personal investment in handler safety.
I believe that one of the most dangerous chores at the feed yard is shipping cattle to the packing plant. This is the time when my heart is most likely to skip a beat, and this task is reserved for only the most experienced handlers. It is an aspect of my farm where I feel that I need to always search for ways to consistently improve. There is the obvious aspect of cattle welfare to consider, but just as important is the human safety issue.
There are several rules of thumb that I believe apply to shipping cattle:
- The larger the bovine — the more likely that the animal’s previous bad habits/behavior will resurface and challenge the handler…This is why good cattle handling throughout the entire lifespan is so important. The rancher begins this process the day that the calf is born and it is so important that he/she gives the calf a good start.
- The more agitated the handler — the more agitated the animal…When things turn bad, they go downhill quickly as animals feed off of the handlers’ emotions.
- Maintaining constant herd movement up the alleyway and into the truck is critical. Newton’s Law of motion applies! The key to good movement is to get the animal thinking of moving forward and limiting distractions which would disrupt that thought…
There will be challenges when shipping cattle – the weather, shipping in the darkness (at night or before the sun comes up), forming a synchronized team with the off-farm truck driver hired to transport the cattle, the disposition of the animals, as well as a variety of other unforeseen factors. These combine to make ensuring a safe shipment one of the hardest responsibilities that I have at the feed yard.
I know that I have a lot of room for improvement in my process of shipping cattle to the packing plant. I also know that we have made great strides in this chore during my tenure at the feed yard. I am committed to continuing to search for better ways to make each and every ship-out safe for both my crew and my cattle. It is one of my greatest challenges.
All of you loyal Feed Yard Foodie readers will recognize that I very rarely have pictures of the ship-out process on the blog. This is not because I do not want to share this experience with each of you, it is simply because I cannot put the big boys on the bus safely if I am distracted by taking pictures…