Proper handling of cattle is an aspect of beef production that needs to be a concern for anyone involved in any of the stages of management.

Not only is proper handling a key to efficiency and safety, it impacts animal health and can have major influences on the quality of the final beef product.

Virginia Beef Quality Assurance is a program that operates in Virginia under the guidelines of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in cooperation with the Mid-Atlantic BQA alliance and through the efforts of Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Cattleman’s Association.

The BQA program has certified a large number of cattle producers in Virginia that represent a majority of the cattle produced each year in the state. The program requires that producers be recertified every 3 years.

During the 2012-2015 cycle all re-certifications will involve training in cattle handling.

In recent years, appropriate handling has been tied to impacts on cattle health.

Cattle have two major systems to protect themselves. The first system is to deal with external threats. This system is sometimes called the “fight or flight” system.

Think about this system as how a calf deals with a wolf attack. Most of the calves’ resources are directed towards getting away from the wolf. There are a set of hormones and metabolism all geared to this fight-or-flight system.

When we talk about the effects of “stress” on cattle health we are really referring to the switch to dealing with external threats.

The other protection system that cattle have is the one designed to deal with internal threats. People often call this the immune system, but it actually involves more than the cells and substances that are technically the immune system.

The metabolism of energy and protein and systems that clear infectious agents from the respiratory or digestive systems are also part of the internal defense system. This system deals with cattle diseases caused by infections.

An important concept in cattle health is that the fight-or-flight system gets priority over the internal protection system. In the evolutionary history of cattle, it was more important to get away from the wolf than to deal with the bugs in the lung, for example. If the wolf got the calf, what did a few bugs in the lung matter?

Not only does the fight-or-flight system have priority over the disease protection mechanism, but once the external protection system is turned on, it stays on for a time.

Can last for several days

Hence, a calf that is subjected to a long chase at gathering before sale might still be in the external protection mode for several days.

Cattle handling becomes important because it is one of the major ways that the external defense system is triggered. Once the system is triggered it has big effects on the external protection or disease prevention approach, and this effect can last for several days.

Cattle handling can, itself, be severe enough to suppress disease prevention and allow cattle to get sick.

Often there are a series of stresses that shift the internal priorities of calves into the external-protection mode.

Think of calves that are roughly gathered, sorted with whips and hits, crowded with strange calves, roughly worked through a chute, separated from their dams and subjected to a long truck ride.

Proper cattle handling involves many factors.

Three important aspects of handling include: 1) having appropriate equipment; 2) employing proper handler actions; and 3) using cattle handling aids in the proper way.

Each of these factors will be discussed in future articles. All three of these aspects must be appropriately dealt with if cattle handling is to be a non-stressful event.

Even with a good set of working equipment, improper actions by handlers can trigger external protective reactions in cattle.

Anxious use of a hot shot can negate all the arrangements made to have a low-stress working facility.

The goal for Beef Quality Assurance in Virginia is to have all personnel involved in the beef cattle industry in Virginia make improvements in cattle handling so that cattle can have maximum internal protection operating at all times.

Besides, our consumers are increasingly concerned about how the cattle that produce their product have been handled.

(Last January, Temple Grandin visited with Virginia cattlemen at the winter beef conference. She also had some interesting points to make on the subject of cattle handling. Her remarks can be found here).