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University of Minnesota Extension

Stockmanship in Livestock

Source: Karen Johnson and Allison Wright, University of Minnesota Extension 

As a farmer, it is easy to get caught up in the moment, and forget about general principles of stockmanship. Stockmanship is the art and science of properly handling cattle or other farm animals. Let’s take a deeper look at basic principles of stockmanship during stressful situations, handling considerations, and transportation of animals.

Basic principles of stockmanship 

  • The animal wants to see you.
  • The animal wants to go around you.
  • The animal wants to be around other animals.
  • The animal can only think of one thing at a time.

Livestock thrive in a stress free environment. Livestock can feel stressed very easily. As a farmer it is important to be aware of the stresses your animals might be facing including: noise sensitivity, isolation, past experiences, and warning signs. 

Yelling and hollering are all causes of noise stress on animals. While moving animals it is easy to do both of them, but staying quiet and calm will be more effective to minimize stress reactions from the livestock. 

Livestock become more aware and nervous when they are separated from their herd. This nervous reaction will make it easier for you to observe warning signs. Once warning signs are happening the animal will soon be stressed. Rethink the method or strategy of what you are doing once this occurs. For example gate placement when transferring animals from pen to pen or moving the animals in a group. 

Warning signs in livestock, 

  • Raised head
  • Pinned ears
  • Raised tail 
  • Raised hair on back 
  • Bared teeth
  • Pawing the ground

In general terms, animals have a very clear memory. Livestock remember the “bad zones” in each area. For example, if an animal slips in one area of the pen they will be more nervous going to that area again. Keeping all interactions with livestock stress free helps eliminate “bad zones”. Sticking with the Basic principles of Stockmanship, will be a good first step in keeping your animal calm and safe.

livestock flight zones
Livestock flight zones. Photo credit: South Dakota State University

Good livestock handlers should be aware of the safety protocols and set-up on each piece of equipment used by the livestock: man-gates in pens, working/squeeze chutes, halters, anti-kicking devices, cattle lifters, ect. Every worker should be trained on the ins and outs of each piece of equipment, and how to use them in a calm manner to keep the cattle willing to cooperate. 

Transporting animals starts with keeping the animal in a stress free environment. Another important aspect of handling animals is being aware of their flight zone. Flight zone is the imaginary circle around the animal, another term would be the animals comfort zone. Being aware of the flight zone will help handlers know where to stand when herding the animals. Flight zones have three main parts: blind spot, point of balance, and the edge of the flight zone. 

The blind spot is the spot behind the animal where the animal can’t see, standing in this spot will make the animal uneasy, and unable to know where you want them to go. 

The point of balance is located behind the shoulder of the animal. Standing in the point of balance will help keep the animal at ease. From that position you can walk closer to the head to turn the animal around or walk toward the rump and have the animal turn towards you. 

Edge of flight zone is the area around the flight zone, entering in the edge (point B) will make the animal aware you are close and will move in the opposite direction. Standing before the edge of flight zone (point A) is as close the handler can get to the animal before they want to move. This distance isn’t set in stone for each species. Factors including the animals comfort levels with each handler, and independence of the animal will have changed the distance for each animal. To the right is a picture from South Dakota State University, showing flight zones. 

Just like humans, livestock have three types of vision: monocular vision, binocular vision, and a blind area. Each type of vision comes with its own reaction from the livestock.  The diagram to the right is from the National Farm Animal Care Council. 

Livestock vision area
Livestock vision area diagram. Photo Credit: National Farm Animal Care Council

Monocular vision

  • No depth perception.
  • The majority of the vision the animal will use.
  • On either side of the animal, only using one range of vision at a time.
  • Approaching from this angle is how you move the livestock.

Binocular vision

  • Using both eyes for vision.
  • Animals can perceive depth. 
  • Approaching from this angle will make the livestock less agitated. 

Blind area

  • No vision in this area.  
  • Approaching from this angle can get you kicked, and agitate the animal.

Questions? Feel free to contact Karen Johnson at ande9495@umn.edu or 320-484-4303 (McLeod) or 320-693-5275 (Meeker). 

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