Minimizing personal injury on dairy farms

Farm Forum

Here is an alarming statistic, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (2012), “Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting was one of only two private industries to experience an increase in the rate of injuries and illnesses in 2011 compared to 2010.” The BLS specifically pointed out that the increase was driven in both crop production and animal production (primarily dairy cattle and milk production) industries.

Within the dairy industry there is a high percentage of contact time between animals and human beings on a daily basis. So how are these injuries occurring? Many victims of animal injuries are the result of being stepped on, kicked, fallen on, crushed by cows or mauled by dairy bulls and gored by animals that have not been dehorned.

When training workers about proper livestock handling practices it is important to remind workers that dairy animals have panoramic vision, which means that they are able to see all the way around themselves except for a small blind spot at the nose and rear of the animal.

Knowing how to approach an animal from the side while using verbal cues in a non-threatening manner will minimize spooking an animal. Understanding and using the “flight zone” in the proper manner can help facilitate the moving of an animal in a desired direction. The flight zone is often referred to as an animal’s “personal space”. In essence entering the flight zone will cause the animal to move away from you. For example a wild animal will have a large flight zone up to as much as 160 feet in diameter whereas a tame dairy cow will have a very minimal flight zone and can often be difficult to move. Learning the flight zone penetration area will take some practice within each species. (See Figure 1.)

Cattle are very sensitive to noise and higher frequency of noises than humans. Yelling and hollering causes stress to animals and can make them more difficult to handle. Staying quiet and calm will help minimize these reactions. Additionally, unexpected loud noises such as banging gates, loud exhaust from air cylinders, etc. may startle animals. One way to help condition cattle is to utilize a radio playing in the barn to help reduce the reaction to strange, sudden noises.

We need to remember that cattle are herd animals and isolation may cause an animal to be nervous, stressed or agitated. So when we are working with an animal having another companion animal near will help keep the animal being treated calmer.

Cattle do remember painful or frightening experiences. So if a part of the barn brings up unpleasant memories for a cow such as pokes, slipping or rough handling they may become unwilling to cooperate and react accordingly.

Good livestock handlers should be able to watch for warning signs of an agitated animal. They will show such signs as raised head or pinned ears, raised tails, raised hair on back, bared teeth, excessive bawling, pawing the ground, and snorting.

Appropriate livestock handling behavior includes: 1) Slow and deliberate behavior. 2) No loud noises or quick movements. 3) Do not prod an animal when it has no place to go. 4) Gently touching animals will have a more favorable response than shoving or bumping them. 5) We need to respect animals and not fear them. 6) Intact male animals, especially dairy bulls should be considered potentially dangerous at all times and proper equipment and facilities should be made available to assure safety of handlers. 7) Breeding animals tend to become highly protective of their young especially during parturition. 8) Animals will defend their territory and this should be kept in mind at all time, given the size, mass, strength, and speed of an animal. 9) Cows will typically kick forward and out to the side and will also have the tendency to kick toward the side where they have pain from inflammation or injuries. Thus, if a cow has a single quarter with mastitis you may want to approach her from the opposite side of the non-affected udder when examining her or utilize proper restraint to avoid being hurt.

Personal hygiene is extremely important as humans can contract diseases from livestock (Zoonoses.) Diseases such as leptospirosis, rabies, and ring worm are fairly common whereas anthrax and bovine tuberculosis are rare but still exist. Using personal protective equipment such as splash guards, eye wash stations, gloves, and wash stations will minimize disease along with good hygiene by livestock handlers. Dead animals should be disposed of in a timely and proper manner to minimize the spread or potential exposure to a disease.

Lastly, using appropriate livestock handling equipment is a must. Equipment such as mangates in pens, working/squeeze chutes, treatment pens, halters, headgates, anti-kicking devices, hip lifters or cattle lifters should be available and in proper working order. Facility design is also important including gate placement, pen size, spacing between railings or boards and lighting.