Since the domestication of livestock, animal husbands have been watching over their critters keenly for sign of disease, distress, and indications that animals are tired, thirsty, hot, you name it. And as we learned to read our stock, we’ve also come to understand them better, gaining valuable insight into the behavioral biology of the animals we tend, and especially new insights into how we can work best with them.
Down to a science
Stressors play an important role in livestock fertility, how quickly they put on weight, and how well they perform in a general sense. The effects of stressors, not surprisingly, are far-reaching.
In her essay, “Stress Management for Equine Athletes,” Karyn Malinowski, PhD., Rutgers University extension equine specialist, writes, “chronic stress and subsequent release of cortisol has been implicated in many deleterious conditions including aggressive behavior; decreased growth and reproductive capability; inhibition of the immune system; and increased risks of gastric ulceration, colic, and diarrhea.”
Cortisol, a steroid hormone, isn’t just unique to equines. Higher levels of cortisol indicate elevated stress levels, which have widespread malignant effects on most animals — from poor bone formation to more common problems.
In short, if you want to improve the performance of your livestock and keep healthier, higher-quality animals with improved fertility rates and a higher quality of milk, eggs, meat or other product, it is essential to pay attention to livestock stress levels. Finding ways to reduce those levels during everyday care and handling is a big part of the responsible animal husband’s job, and a subject that leading doctor of animal science Dr. Temple Grandin has spent years studying.
Livestock stress comprises two basic categories: physical stressors — including weather, injury, illness and exertion — and psychological stressors — such as changes in environment, introduction of new animals, loud noises, mistreatment (also a physical stressor), and auditory and visual stressors (many animals fear walking into a dark building when it is bright outside). The sensory environment in which animals live is just as important yet can be less obvious.
Grandin has written extensively on the effects of livestock stress and productivity. In her article “Behavioral Principles of Livestock Handling,” she suggests employing sight restriction to help lessen livestock stress. It is important to consider livestock perspective and how they see bright lights, shadows, movement and handler presence.
Livestock animals see in color, and pigs and cows “have a visual field in excess of 300 degrees.” Shadows and transitioning between darker and lighter spaces can be stressful. Consider leaving both sides of a barn open on particularly bright days to reduce darkness in the building. Also, any flapping flags, sheets, tarps or other similar objects tend to startle livestock.
Grandin reports that “even though ruminant animals have depth perception, their ability to perceive depth at ground level while moving with their heads up is probably poor,” and paired with “an extensive blind area at ground level … this may explain why livestock often lower their heads and stop to look at strange things on the ground.” To remedy this, reduce both visual and physical impediments — keep obstacles picked up and reduce shadows where possible.
Auditory stress can also be detrimental to livestock. Grandin recommends handlers always use calm, low tones when speaking to animals, and never shout around them. Livestock can grow accustomed to consistent, moderate background noise, such as a white noise machine or radio. However, intermittent or infrequent sounds and noises can prove stressful. Grandin suggests rubber stops be placed on gates and squeeze chutes to reduce metal banging that can cause agitation.
Positive reinforcement training
To further reduce livestock stress, consider training your animals. To the farmer facing a lengthy task list, this can seem like more of an indulgence than a necessity, but basic livestock training takes minimal time and can dramatically reduce future labor costs.
Positive reinforcement is the act of providing an animal with a reward to increase the likelihood of a desirable behavior. Negative punishment reinforcement in contrast is the act of inserting an unpleasant stimulus to decrease unwanted behavior. For years, professional trainers have used positive reinforcement to train animals, including large animals and those difficult to restrain or control.
Positive reinforcement is particularly helpful for reducing stress as animals in fear of a negative stimulus, such as a cattle prod, suffer from increased cortisol levels. Animals that are willing to be handled are less likely to cause injury to people, animals and themselves.
To use positive reinforcement to train your animals, find ways to reward them for the desired behavior. If you want a young horse to be a pro at trail-ering, use a calm voice and slow movements. Keep the sessions short, ensure there are minimal distractions, and give the animal treats for behaving appropriately. Break the desired behavior into small steps.
To teach a horse to enter the trailer calmly and confidently, allow him to watch a seasoned animal be loaded first. Livestock learn from observing other animals and become anxious when they cannot maintain eye contact with a herdmate. Give treats for coming near the trailer and willingly placing his front feet on the ramp. Always end training sessions on a good note.
If you want your animals to be comfortable being sprayed down, start by trickling water over the animal. Reward for good behavior and a calm manner. Continue until your animals learn that handling and restraint is not a process to be feared. You and your livestock will be less stressed when handling is not a struggle.
Improving the sensory environment and acclimating livestock to handling are important steps to reduce stress. But the greatest gains in reducing livestock stress may be found by allowing animals to live as they were intended to.
Joel Salatin is a full-time, third-generation farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. His farm, Polyface Inc., employs a pasture-based and beyond organic approach producing “salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry and eggs, forage-based rabbits, and forestry products.” One of the guiding principles of Polyface, deals with individuality. “Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.”
When livestock are allowed to forage, dig and engage in natural behaviors, both the land and animals benefit. Polyface’s model capitalizes on harnessing the natural behaviors of animals to improve productivity and increase efficiency.
Daily operations at Polyface are in sync with the natural behaviors of the animals. “Cows are most comfortable at night, so we move them around 4 p.m. to maximize the amount of time they can graze comfortably. Also, afternoon moves protect us from bloat since the grass is not dry and dew-covered. The energy in the grass is also highest late in the day; it drops down at night,” says Salatin. “Animals love a routine, so we do chores at the same time every day. We do them in the order that serves the animals best.”
The Global Animal Partnership, an international nonprofit organization committed to improving the lives of farm animals, offers the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards — the same standards used by Whole Foods for humane meat production standards. Much of the criteria for better humane ratings feature components such as pasture-based and animal-centric production. Numerous studies demonstrate animals are physically and psychologically healthier when raised in environments that facilitate natural behaviors.
By providing a calm and consistent environment for your livestock, eliminating disruptive sights and sounds, socializing and training your animals, and adopting a pasture-based system, you can significantly reduce your livestock’s stress — and reap the rewards. As Joel notes, “you build trust with animals the same way you do with humans — over time and with unconditional gentleness and respect.”
Here’s to your stress-free and successful farm.
Interested in more? Keep your cattle calm while moving them through a loading chute in more effective fashion, by “Understanding Your Cattle’s Flight Zone.”
Kathryn Schneider is a freelance writer specializing in animal behavior and environmental issues. Email her at Kathryn.Schneider1026@gmail.com.