Dairy Cattle Handling Involves Worker & Cattle Learning

By Dr. Don Hoglund

Dairy cattle handling Extension programs are all about training workers to handle cattle calmly. We all realize that calm people generally have calm cattle. During the training process, educators teach workers to observe cattle well-being and document everything they can regarding animal production. However, many Extension programs often overlook the animal learning component of safe and efficient dairy farming education. Animal learning is arguably the cornerstone of human-animal interactions because animals learn from and can respond to every interaction within their environment. Intended outcomes from predictable animal responses are a primary objective of on-farm handling education programs.

Why is cattle handling training so important? The injury rate for animal production workers is historically higher than the injury rate across all types of work in the U.S. In fact, the 2011 injury rate for animal production workers was 6.7 injuries per 100 workers; whereas, the rate across all types of work was 3.8 injuries per 100 workers (Department of Labor, 2012). Because livestock handling is commonly identified as one of the key causes of farm worker injuries, dairy producers are pursuing opportunities to provide worker safety education that includes cattle handling training. While the goal of these trainings may be to foster human learning on the farm, handling involves human-animal interactions and these interactions are also dependent on animal learning. How do dairy animals respond to different handling techniques? We conducted a research study to help us answer this question.

We recently published our research in the Journal of Extension (https://joe.org/joe/2019august/rb8.php), but we will share some of the highlights in this article. Our study was conducted on a dairy in Pennsylvania, over the course of two days. Our research team included scientists from coast-to-coast with Dr. Amber Adams Progar from Washington State University and Dr. Michaela Kristula from the University of Pennsylvania. Our goals were to measure dairy heifer behavioral responses towards handlers that received different handler trainings and then document whether the time of day or repeated handling affected heifer responses to handlers.

In short, six handlers received dairy cattle handling training through either a lecture, a hands-on workshop, or a video series. Two handlers were taught handling skills by an experienced instructor (Dr. Don Höglund from Dairy Stockmanship® ) during a 1.5-h face-to-face classroom lecture (Group 1). Dr. Höglund also taught another group of two handlers during a face-to-face classroom lecture that was then followed by a 1-h hands-on workshop (Group 2). A third group of handlers (Group 3) watched a series of commercially available videos ("Introduction to Dairy Stockmanship" by Dr. Paul Rapnicki and Dr. Don Höglund, "Moving Cows to the Milking Parlor" by Dr. Paul Rapnicki and Dr. Don Höglund, and "Handling Dairy Calves and Heifers" by Dr. Ben Bartlett). After participating in the handling training, each handler was assigned to a pen of six weaned Holstein heifers and asked to complete a series of 15- minute handling tests with the heifers. Each handling test included a series of herding heifers to opposite ends of the pen. After the first 15-minute handling test on the morning of Day 1, handlers from Group 1 and Group 3 also received the hands-on workshop training with Dr. Höglund. We recorded all the handling tests with video cameras and then observed the videos to document heifer behavior during handling. See figures 1, 2, & 3.


We expected the day and time of training to be most influential on heifer behavior during handling, but heifer handling ease was expected to improve when handlers participated in a hands-on workshop. The results presented in this article are intended to help Extension educators facilitate dairy cattle handling programs that incorporate animal training, in addition to worker training.

Heifers in this study were trained over two days, for only about 15 minutes each day, in which they faced the handler less and walked more during handling on the second day than the first day of training. Heifers faced the handler less, walked more during herding, and slipped less during afternoon tests than morning tests. Based on the results, we recommend offering hands-on dairy cattle handling Extension programs over at least two days and during the afternoon hours. The handlers that received the hands-on workshop training at the beginning of the study had fewer heifers face them and, in turn, more heifers tended to walk during handling and fewer heifers tended to slip. We did not notice any differences in heifer behavior between pens with handlers that received the lecture only or video-based only trainings.

We concluded that repeated, hands-on training of farm staff had a greater influence on cattle training than the type of training the handler received; however, handler training that incorporated a hands-on workshop was most effective. Training dairy cattle to face away from handlers increased heifer walking behavior and decreased slipping behavior during handling. In conclusion, dairy cattle handling Extension programs should focus on training not only the handler but the animals as well. Proprietary workshops that Dr. Don Höglund provides are considered transformative “next generation” safe and efficient lowenergy human and animal learning platforms. Authors of this summary are Amber Adams Progar Ph.D. Washington State University and Don Höglund DVM, dhoglund@dairystockmanship.com.