Farm Ireland

Sunday 19 November 2017

Beware of handling frightened livestock

Peadar O Scanaill

There are two items for discussion this week, both of which are poles apart from each other. The first involves the handling of fractious animals, and the other involves skin reactions on grazing cattle.

Two episodes of handling fractious and frightened cattle recently served to remind ourselves in the practice and the farmers involved of the dangers of livestock handling on modern Irish farms. One was the annual TB test on a small suckler farm, where only three batches of cattle were involved. The first two batches went through the crush without a hitch, but the third group raised some severe problems.

This last batch had been moved from another part of the farm to enable the use of the good cattle crush for the purpose of the test. The movement to the new pen agitated the cattle greatly, and so, when attempting to send them up the chute, the whole batch lost it. They burst out the gate at the rear of the shed and out into a 50ac cornfield. It took two days for the farmer to round them up again, and during that time, one animal escaped onto the road, and another ended up in a deep ditch.

What was frightening about the whole experience is how out of control the cattle were. The stock were obviously upset after the initial move to prepare for the test. But from that point on, the cattle seemed to be a danger to all who came near them.

One would feel sorry for any animal when you see such fear in its eyes, and know by its actions and manner that it is afraid. But most of all, we must fear for our own safety. An animal in such a state will attack anyone who approaches. Even though all we want to do is help, we must abandon ship at these times. If the cattle are so agitated that they are a safety risk to a handler, then leave them alone. Let them settle and become accustomed to the new environment. It may just be the last three animals for dosing, or the last crush-load at a farm inspection, but if one or two animals are out of control then it's wiser to postpone for another day.

We sometimes forget that changes in an animal's surroundings can be a huge cause of distress for cattle.


The second example of where care is needed around livestock was a bit more obvious. This was a young heifer that should not have been in calf. She was noticed to be bagging up recently and was attempting to calve. She was moved to the calving pen to assist the calving. But that's where she became a danger to all around her. We are well aware that young heifers during their first calving can be extra fractious. This particular heifer was worse than most and the vet was called to help calve the poor animal.

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It was at that point that we all agreed that human safety was of paramount importance. Whether the heifer or calf was lost, the priority was that nobody was to get hurt or injured.

The bottom line is that when changing anything in the beef cattle's environment, we must bear in mind the effect it could have on the individual animal. More and more frequently on modern Irish farms, we come across cattle that have been handled less than in years gone by. The mothers are agitated in the company of handlers and very quickly the young beef calf picks up on this fear. Later in life, that fear manifests itself as the animal is dangerous to handle when herded into a pen or up a crush.

It behoves us all to be well aware of the dangers associated with handling cattle and, most of all, when the routine is changed in any way.

To finish for this week, we must draw attention to the effect of strong sunlight on grazing cattle. Keep an eye out for evidence of sunburn, especially along the back and head area of light-coloured cattle. The absence of shade in fields with low hedges can leave the poor animal in a sorry state, especially where strong, sunny days are concerned.

Fresh grass adds to the problem as this taxes the liver to work harder, and thus leads to alterations in the context of the skin, which reacts more to strong sunlight. Any liver disease will also compound the issue, so it's important to seek veterinary advice when severe skin reactions are noticed.

Peadar O Scanaill is a vet in Meath and a member of Veterinary Ireland's Animal Health Committee. Email:

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