Basic Livestock Care Skills

Caring for livestock is among the basics for those practicing good animal husbandry.

Cow and calf

A cow cleaning up its young calf.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Ben Klaus

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Without a doubt, livestock bring their owners great joy and happiness. There’s nothing like the peaceful feeling of watching your animals graze at sunrise, laughing at a new lamb frolicking, or the satisfaction of putting good, wholesome food on the table. But, along with owning livestock comes a great responsibility to do all we can to practice good animal husbandry and ensure their health and welfare.

A good relationship with a large-animal vet can go a long way toward achieving that health and welfare. A vet cannot only provide care in times of crisis, but can help make sure routine and preventative health care is up to date. To enhance that relationship, there are several basic skills every livestock owner can master that will make their vet’s job easier and help ensure a happy and productive herd. These skills will allow you to assess an animal’s health, administer basic medications, and make sure your animals are in tip-top condition for breeding and giving birth.

Assessing an animal’s condition

Take a temperature. If you notice something is just “not quite right” with your animal, one of the first things you can look at objectively is the body temperature of the animal.

One of the quickest and most valuable assessment tools is a simple thermometer. An animal with an elevated temperature on a cool, cloudy day might be in the early stages of an infectious disease. Animals with a high temperature on a hot, sunny day may be experiencing heat distress. And an animal with too low a body temperature for the current weather conditions might be in shock or experiencing some other systemic problem.

Traditional veterinary thermometers are glass with mercury inside. They will come with a loop on the end for tying a string through so the thermometer can be inserted as far as possible without losing it. Don’t skip this step. Losing a thermometer where you don’t want to lose one can add insult to injury at a time when you don’t need the headache.

If using a glass thermometer, shake it down to get the mercury to the bottom of the bulb. Use plenty of OB lube, as tearing sensitive rectal tissues can create additional problems. (In a pinch, dish soap can be used.) You can also use a digital thermometer, but be sure, as with the glass one, to also tie a string around it for easy retrieval. These aren’t quite as easy to become lost as the slender glass ones, but better safe than sorry.

Insert the lubed thermometer into the rectum. The digital ones will beep when they have a reading; the glass ones should be left in for about three minutes and then read. Know what is normal for your species of livestock.

Safety tip: Make sure to stand to the side of the animal to avoid being injured should they kick. Most large animals don’t pay any attention to the thermometer, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

Pulse, respiration, and CRT. Another key sign of whether or not an animal is experiencing stress is an elevated pulse and respiration rate. Respiration rate is fairly easy to observe and calculate. Simply count the number of breaths over a short period of time, say 15 seconds, and multiply by four or whatever factor will make a minute. An elevated respiration rate in an animal that is not overheated or exercising should be cause for concern.

The pulse rate is not always so easily visible. Most animals have an artery running along the inside of the jawline. This is usually the best place to check their pulse. Place the tips of your fingers on the inside of the jaw and locate the artery. Again, count the beats over a short period of time and multiply to get the rate per minute. This can be a bit tricky to get a feel for, so if you have the opportunity to practice on a cooperative animal a few times, take advantage of it.

Another indicator to look at is the capillary refill time, or CRT, and the condition of the mucus membranes of the gums. Normal healthy gum tissue is moist and bright pink from the blood flowing through hundreds of tiny capillaries. If you press on the gum with your finger, when you remove your finger the tissue will be pale, but should immediately return to normal color. If it takes more than a couple of seconds to return to normal, the animal is experiencing some sort of systemic stress. If the gums are not moist, this could also be cause for concern. Be sure you can do this safely, as animals in pain can be more likely to snap or bite.

Pinch test. Can you tell if your animal is dehydrated or not? It doesn’t take a lot for an animal to dehydrate, especially on a hot day. Grab a pinch of skin between your thumb and forefinger. Let go. Well-hydrated skin will snap back relatively quickly. If the fold of skin remains for several seconds before disappearing, the animal is dehydrated. The longer the tent remains, the more dehydrated. Depending on severity, the animal may not be able to drink enough to rehydrate, and if other underlying issues are at play, it may take IV fluids to get them back on track.

Condition scores. Everybody knows when an animal is too fat or too skinny, right? Not necessarily. Different owners have varying opinions of what they prefer their animals to look like, and often seeing an animal daily can dull an owner’s perception of subtle changes that only become apparent when they become drastic.

Learning to use condition score charts to objectively assess your animals’ physical condition can be an invaluable tool. There are charts for each species available with a quick internet search, and many books on animal husbandry will also have charts. In most cases, they are available from your local extension agent as well.

Some charts use a 5-point scale, others up to a 9, but no matter what the scale is, they all have a midpoint that is considered ideal, with a point or two on either side that are considered acceptable. Deviating too far from “ideal” in either direction (too thin or excessive fat) can cause a host of issues for the owner.

Animals that are too thin may be at risk for reproductive problems, and may become susceptible to other health issues. They also may need dewormed, may need dietary changes, or may need to have their teeth checked to make sure they can make use of whatever feeds they are eating.

Animals scoring on the too-fat side of things may also have reproductive problems, but for the opposite reasons. Heavier animals may also experience soundness issues. And, from an economic point of view, consistently feeding an animal extra calories is not cost effective.

Learning to objectively evaluate condition score is not difficult. Just set aside some time to read over the chart and the information, and then look closely at your animals, making honest notes on how they compare to the different points specified on the chart. Try to make a point to schedule and do this two or three times a year. For example, going into winter, to make sure they have enough body condition to handle cold temperatures well, coming out of winter, and post breeding or weaning, to make sure they have the reserves to handle carrying their offspring to term — or rebreeding within a desirable amount of time.

Injections, vaccines, and antibiotics

At some point, livestock owners might be faced with having to administer vaccinations, or in the case of illness or injury, antibiotics. Being able to give injections safely and quickly will make the experience less challenging for both the animal and the owner.

The most common type of injection given to livestock is IM, or intra-muscular. The medicine or vaccine is deposited into the muscle tissue, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. The location of this type of injection is very important. It has to go deep enough into the muscle to not seep back out of the injection site, but not so deep you risk hitting bone or other tissue. The highly vascular nature of muscle tissue allows the medication to be absorbed quickly, and a larger volume can be administered at a given dose.

Needle selection is also important. The needle must be of a sufficient gauge, or diameter, to allow the medicine to be deposited, but not create so large a hole that the medicine seeps back out. The most common gauge is 18 or 20, usually at a length of 1 to 1-1/2 inches. Heavier liquids like penicillin will need the larger 18 gauge, while vaccines and thinner liquids can be administered with the 20 gauge. Many vaccines for horses come prepackaged in a single-dose syringe, with the appropriate needle included.

For cattle and horses, injections are usually placed in the muscle of the neck, and less commonly in the muscles of the hip. Any time you inject a substance into the muscle tissue of any animal, you run the risk of damaging the muscle or causing an abscess, even a tiny one. These are usually minor and relatively unnoticeable, but in the case of a bovine that will later be harvested for meat, any damaged or bruised portion of the meat will need to be cut away, which will reduce the value of the more premium cuts of meat in the hind quarters. The neck is generally used for stew meat, and any trimming will not be noticeable.

The neck is preferred for horses unless they are restrained, so as to be unable to kick. In the case of multiple injections over the course of an illness treatment, it is best to use a different site for each injection. This allows the medicine to absorb from each site, and for healing to begin. It also allows the tenderness accompanying multiple injections to be spread out and not concentrated in one area.

The injection site can be cleaned with alcohol prior to giving the shot to reduce the amount of dirt or bacteria carried through the skin into the muscle tissue. Select the site, and poke the needle in quickly and firmly. Draw the syringe plunger back a bit just to make sure you have not accidentally accessed a vein, but this is not common. If you draw back any blood, pull the needle out and choose a slightly different site.

Subcutaneous, or sub-Q injections, are administered under the skin. This allows the medicine to be absorbed more slowly than when it is deposited directly into the muscle tissue. A 20-gauge needle is the typical size. These injections can leave a lump under the skin until the solution is absorbed into the tissue. To administer a sub-Q injection, pinch some of the skin and pull it away from the body. You will create a little tent of skin, and the base of this tent is where you will make the injection. Be careful to not go too shallow, as it can be very easy to go all the way through the skin with the needle. Again, draw the plunger back a bit to make sure you are not in a vein, but this is unlikely with a sub-Q injection.

The last type of injection is intravenous, or IV, and involves accessing a vein and depositing the medicine directly into the bloodstream. This type of injection allows almost instant absorption of the medication. This is something that most livestock owners will not run across regularly, and the majority of medications that require this type of administration are prescription only and will need to be given by a veterinarian.

When giving any injection, use a clean needle for each animal, and if a needle becomes bent or rough, replace it with a new one.

With all medications, use caution when handling them, and observe all the safety recommendations. Be careful with exposed needles, and recap and remove them as soon as possible after administering the medication. Make sure the needles are disposed of appropriately as well.

With any type of injection, confidence will help make the experience better. Being hesitant and tentative will cause more discomfort for the animal. If necessary, get an empty syringe and an extra needle and practice giving injections to an orange, like human medical professionals do.

Administering oral medications

Often, routine medications such as dewormers and supplements are part of the routine husbandry management of livestock. Horses are routinely given paste dewormers as part of a regular maintenance program. To make sure you get all the meds to where the animal needs them, make sure your horse hasn’t just finished a bite of grain or hay. Having food in his mouth makes it easy to spit out the paste. Take your horses halter in one hand, and (with the tube set to the appropriate dose) slide the tube between his lips. If you can slide it into the space where the bit rests in the mouth, he will usually open his mouth, and with the tube pointing toward the back of the tongue, depress the plunger. Horses breathe through their noses, not their mouths, so you have little chance of choking the animal.

Administering oral medications to sheep and goats can be a bit trickier, but the same rules apply. You can use a drench gun, which is basically a long, curved tube with a smooth rounded end to make inserting it into the animal’s mouth easier. Restrain the animal and place the syringe or drench gun in the corner of the mouth, over the back of the tongue, and gently depress the plunger. Go slowly to give the animal a chance to swallow. Hold the head up, but not so high that he can’t swallow. Make sure the goat or sheep has swallowed the medication before letting him go.

As always, consult with your veterinarian on any questions you have about your animal’s health. They will be best able to advise you on specific concerns, treatment plans, and follow-up care. But mastering some of these basic skills will help them help you, plus save you some money in the process.  


Planning is the key to helping your livestock thrive in winter weather conditions.


By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, and by night she manages Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. She has learned to manage all sorts of livestock in all sorts of weather conditions at her Kansas farm.