Beef Cattle Handling Safety

Ag Safety and Health September 11, 2013|Print

Many people consider animals to be stubborn or difficult, but the actions of the handler are the main culprit in most animal handling incidents. An animal handling incident can result in internal injuries, broken bones, medical expenses, structural damage, and loss of productivity. To increase safety for you and your cattle, you need to understand the basics of animal behavior, facility design, and handling practices.

Cattle Senses and Characteristics

(Source: Stueland and Gunderson, International Labour Organization)

Cattle have panoramic vision which allows them to see in all directions (approximately 300°) without moving their heads. Their only blind spot is directly behind them. Compared to a cow’s vision, a human’s vision is about 180° with a much larger blind spot. Even though a cow’s field of vision is good, cattle have very poor depth perception and limited vertical vision. For cattle to determine depth, they must stop and put their heads down. What you perceive as a simple shadow, a cow may perceive as a deep ditch. Remember that an unfamiliar item such as a white paper cup, a shadow, or a shirt hanging on a post can cause cattle to balk and affect cattle movement. To account for these characteristics in cattle and to maintain proper cattle flow, it is important to use a curved, solidly enclosed, well-lighted working facility with a uniform color.  

Cattle are creatures of habit with strong territorial instincts and a developed sense of “homeland,” evidenced by well-worn paths between pastures, buildings, and feeding areas. This instinct is one reason why cows may be hesitant to go into unfamiliar areas. Cattle's hearing is different from that of humans. They hear both low-volume and high-frequency sounds better than humans do, but they have difficulties locating the source of a sound. Because it is difficult for them to identify the sound location, cattle may startle easily, potentially leading to a flight response with resulting structural damage and physical damage to themselves or workers.

Flight or Comfort Zone

(Source: Informed Farmers)

To safely move cattle, you must understand their “flight or comfort zone”—that is, their personal space. When you enter cattle's personal space, their tendency is to move away. The size of an animal’s flight zone is dependent upon its fearfulness or docility, your approach, and the animal’s state of excitement. A docile animal’s flight zone may be 5 ft., but a range animal's could be up to 300 ft. Work at the edge of the flight zone at approximately 45° to 60° behind the animal’s shoulder to reduce the risk of causing the animal to panic. An animal’s point of balance is typically located at its shoulder, so if you need to move an animal forward, you should be behind the point of balance. If you need to move the animal backward, position yourself in front of its point of balance. Stay to the side and never walk directly behind the animal. By understanding the flight zone and point of balance, you can move cattle more easily, efficiently, and with less risk of injury. 

To learn more about the characteristics and movement, watch the following video by Dr. Baxter Black, DVM, and Dr. Temple Grandin, Colorado State University:



(Source: Bowman Livestock Equipment Co.)

Cattle tend to follow each other, so they need to be able to see the next animal in front of them but should not be able to see activity outside of the chute. Chutes should have solid and sloped sides to reduce distractions and shadowing, which may cause an animal to balk. When designing chutes, note that a single chute should be approximately 20 ft. long for smaller operations and up to 30 ft. or 50 ft. for larger operations. These chute lengths will allow the cattle to see those animals ahead of them and maneuver through the chute. When using chutes, note that the recommendation is to use mounted backstops rather than the insertion of pipes through the sides of the chute. Non-secured components are hazardous to workers. However, if pipes must be used, make sure the pipes are between the cattle and the worker to decrease the risk of an injury. Overhead restrainers in the chute can prevent cattle from turning around, rearing up, or falling over backwards. 

Holding Pens

Proper space, an adequate number of sorting pens, gating, and animal flow are the keys to a good holding pen. These minimize hazards to workers. The recommended space for cattle is at least 20 sq. ft. per head for mature cattle; the maximum number of mature cattle per pen should be 50 head. If the pen is too small, the worker will be in the cattle’s flight zone, resulting in an increased risk to the worker. Problems also arise if the pen is too large, as it becomes difficult to contain and direct the cattle.

All pens should have a 14 in. wide pass-through in the pen corners for workers to escape through should the animals become agitated or the workers feel endangered. Assess your holding pens and place gates in a way that promotes animal movement between areas to reduce the need for handlers to enter the area to force cattle movement. Efficient animal movement that can be completed through the proper use of pens, and gating reduces the amount of time that workers need to be in direct contact with the animals, therefore decreasing the potential for injury.  

Crowding Pen

When using a crowding pen, keep the herd size to 10 or fewer animals, a number which gives the cattle ample turning space. If you have a lone animal that refuses to move, bring it in with a different group of animals to reduce the risk of it becoming agitated. A circular crowding area with totally enclosed sides and crowding gate facilitates animal flow and promotes worker safety. 

Avoid overcrowding, as it may restrict cattle movement, and chute blockage, which necessitates a handler entering the pen to move the animals. Moving animals efficiently through gates can reduce the risk of a bottleneck effect, thereby decreasing the need for a worker to enter the area and regain cattle movement.

Another option for avoiding direct animal contact is to situate a catwalk around the outside of the crowding pen, about 36 in. below the top of the fence. Such a catwalk allows the worker to maneuver cattle toward the chute without direct animal contact.

Squeeze Chute

(Source: Arrow Farmquip)

Farmers and ranchers need safe access to restrained cattle for reasons such as inoculations, medical treatment, and artificial insemination. A squeeze chute is more costly than a head gate, but it provides the worker with more control over the animal. Make sure all workers are familiar with the standard operating procedures when working in all hazardous situations. Everyone must know about possible pinch points on chutes and the potential dangers of handles that open and close the headgate, sides, and tailgates. Inspect rope-and-pulley devices and replace any rope that is fraying.

To reduce the risk of a fall from climbing over a fence, build an entrance gate behind the squeeze chute that swings into the chute, blocking the next animal and protecting the person entering.

When using electrical equipment in the chute area, use ground-fault circuit interrupters and moisture-proof electrical outlets to prevent electric shock, and use only fence controllers that have been laboratory tested and are approved by a recognized agency such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL).

ATV Usage around Cattle

Handling and moving cattle can be done from horseback, on foot, or with the use of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). When using an ATV, scan ahead and to the side for obstacles, uneven terrain, vehicles, people, and animals. Reduce your speed. Pay attention to hazards such as guy wires and barbed wire fences; they are low profile and difficult to see. When gathering livestock, the ATV rider often concentrates more on the animals than on the terrain. Failure to watch changing terrain or to look for unexpected obstacles can lead to a serious injury. Loose wire lying in a pasture, in brush, or on vines can pull feet from footrests, resulting in an injury. Tall grass in pastures can hide such obstacles as holes, stumps, and rocks from a rider’s view.

For safety, it is essential to keep the ATV in good condition. Perform a pre-trip inspection before riding the ATV and institute a preventive maintenance program. Be aware of the turning and maneuvering space needed for the ATV. Click here to be directed to the article titled "ATV Safety for Agricultural Producers" to learn about the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for ATV operation, ATV maintenance, and safe operating procedures.

Introduce the ATV slowly to the cattle. Their first experiences should be positively associated with a handling activity such as feeding. Many people do not realize that cattle's behavior during handling is affected by previous experiences. Placing the ATV in a field or pen will attract the animals and allow the animals to approach, poke, and sniff. Understanding the concepts of flight zone and point of balance described earlier will enable you to use the ATV to handle livestock safely.

Rough handling can cause cattle to be wilder and have more stress than cattle that are handled calmly. Certain individual cattle within a herd may have an excitable temperament and become very agitated. The animals with an excitable temperament should be culled because they are likely to injure other animals or workers.

Additional Safety Recommendations

  • Depending on the activity, wear appropriate PPE, which may include safety glasses, gloves, long pants, steel-toed shoes or boots, shin guards, and hard hats.
  • Cows exhibit strong maternal instincts that cause them to be more defensive and difficult to handle when they have calves. If possible, let young stock stay close to mothers when handling.
  • Use basic hygiene and sanitation practices, such as hand washing, when working around animals to reduce the risk of acquiring a disease such as leptospirosis, rabies, brucellosis, salmonellosis, or ringworm.
  • Keep the herd together to reduce your risk of a hazardous encounter with an animal frightened due to separation from the herd.
  • Gates with latches that can be operated from either side should be hung approximately 6 to 8 in. from the ground so that they can swing freely.
  • To decrease the risk of a fall injury, wear slip-resistant footwear and cover flooring surfaces with roughened concrete or other type of non-slip surface.
Summarized by:
Linda M. Fetzer, Pennsylvania State University –
Michael Pate, Utah State University
Glen G. Blahey, Canadian Agricultural Safety Association 
LaMar Grafft, University of Iowa           
Dennis J. Murphy, Pennsylvania State University –
Aaron M. Yoder, University of Nebraska Medical Center -

Use the following format to cite this article:

Beef cattle handling safety. (2012) Farm and Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health (FReSH) Community of Practice. Retrieved from



Bean, T. (2008) Working Safely with Livestock. The Ohio State University Extension. Retrieved from

Grandin, T. (2011) Understanding flight zone and point of balance for low stress handling of cattle, sheep, and pigs. Retrieved from

Hubert, D., Huhnke, R., & Harp, S. (2003) Cattle handling safety in working facilities. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. Retrieved from

Murphy, D. & Harshman, W. (2007) Animal handling tips. Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from


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