It is the producer’s responsibility to bring animals to processing plants that are reasonably easy to handle and not wild and dangerous. Even in feedlot cattle there may be groups of animals that are more difficult to move, and they may be likely to run over people. Within the last few years, there have been some serious accidents where cattle have run over people.

Recently, I had a scary experience at a feedlot with wild, agitated animals. When I brought a group of them up to the crowd pen, they turned back and raced back and forth past me in the alley. They were really wild compared to a normal group of cattle and much more difficult to handle.

When they were put back in their home pen, I conducted an experiment. I had a cowboy enter their pen on a horse and ride through the middle of the cattle.

They remained calm and quietly flowed around the horse. They were at ease with a person on horseback. The next test was to have the cowboy dismount and walk beside the horse. When the cowboy was leading his horse they became a bit more agitated. The final test was tying the horse to the fence and having the cowboy walk through them on foot.

As soon as they cowboy walked to the middle of the pen, the cattle started running wildly and milling.

It was clear that these animals were fully habituated to people on horseback but not to people on foot. To prevent hazards to handlers at the slaughter plant, cattle must have some previous experience with being moved in and out of pens by a person on foot. If the first person they see on foot is at a plant, the response can be very hazardous. Some of the wildest feedlot cattle at plants have been animals that have been exclusively handled on horseback.

This problem can be easily prevented by giving the cattle some "on-foot" exposure when they are moved into the chute for vaccinations. Many feedlots do this as part of their standard practices.

Perception is reality

To the steer, a person on foot and a person on a horse are viewed as two totally different things. Animals are sensory-based thinkers. Their memories are in specific pictures, smells and sounds. When cattle have been exclusively handled by people on horseback, a person on foot is a scary thing. It is important that a steer’s first experiences with people moving them on foot occurs at either the ranch or the feedlot.

Another dangerous behavior some cattle have is lashing out and kicking at people with both back feet. A common cause of this behavior is working cattle with dogs in confined places, such as chutes. Since the animal is not able to move away from a biting dog, it lashes out and kicks.

Dogs on ranches are fine – provided that they are used in open fields or large pens where the cattle can easily move away. A dog biting at cattle while they are standing in a single file chute may teach cattle to kick.

Certain feed yards on cattle ranches may have more kicking cattle. In one group of cattle, I touched a heifer’s back and she kicked like a rodeo bull with both back feet. When I went back and checked the lot sheets, the yard foreman told me that cattle from this same feedlot had jumped out of the holding pens and had run down the highway.

There are three things that feedlot managers and ranchers can do to make cattle easier to handle:

  1. Move animals calmly with no yelling.
  2. Handle cattle calmly with both horses and people on foot.
  3. Do not use dogs in confined places, such as chutes and small pens.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.