Understanding How Cattle Perceive Their Environment Makes Handling Them Easier

Not understanding how cattle perceive their world can make for a long day for you — and your cattle. For example, a Styrofoam cup that has fallen into the working alley can make cattle balk. A shadow or a flapping shirt on a post or some other distraction can prevent smooth cattle flow. If you are having trouble working a set of cattle, try looking at the world from their perspective.

How Cattle Perceive Their World

Cattle see the world differently than humans. A cow may see more than you see and is often distracted by a motion beside them. However, she doesn’t see the world as clearly and sharply focused as humans see it, and it takes her more time to process what she has seen. Cattle have panoramic vision of more than 300 degrees and only have a blind spot directly in the back of their heads. Human vision, by comparison, is roughly 180 degrees, and we have a much larger blind spot.

While their field of vision is practically unlimited, cattle have poor depth perception of nearby objects and have limited vertical vision. Cattle must lower their heads to focus on something on the ground because they only have about 60 degrees of vertical vision, compared to 140 degrees for humans. Due to their limitation in vertical vision and their lack of ability to focus quickly, a shadow on the ground appears to them to be a deep crevasse.

Handlers can help reduce distractions and shadowing by taking these limitations into consideration and using a solid-sided working alley. Also, uniformity in color of handling facilities will reduce balking. Curved, solidly enclosed, and well-lighted working facilities take advantage of these senses, along with the animal’s strong desire to find an avenue of escape when confined.

Cattle also hear differently than humans. They can hear both lower volume and higher frequency sounds better than people. It may be the sound of your truck, with feed in it, more than the sight of the truck, that makes cattle move toward it. Cattle hear extremely well, but the trade-off is that they have less ability to locate the source of a sound. People can pinpoint where a sound came from within 5 degrees, whereas cattle can only isolate the source down to about 30 degrees. Be mindful of cattle with severe sight problems, as they will rely to a greater extent on their sense of hearing. Thus, they may suddenly swing around to investigate a noise.

Defensive Animals

Horses usually kick directly toward the rear. Cattle are “round-house” punchers. Cows kick forward and out to the side. Cows also commonly kick toward the side of their body that is experiencing pain. So, if a cow is suffering from mastitis in one quarter, consider approaching her from the opposite side of the affliction. Cattle exhibiting maternal instincts are usually more defensive and difficult to handle. Removal from a familiar pasture or pen can cause animals to react unexpectedly. Shadows, yelling, and contrasts in lighting can further excite animals and make their behavior unpredictable. Similar problems occur when animals are moved away from feed, separated from the herd, or approached by an unfamiliar person. It is usually easier to take two or three additional animals when you want to work with only one of them. Never prod an animal when it has no place to go. Cattle that become upset during handling and/or that have a bad disposition may adopt a “fight” rather than “flight” behavior. Before entering an enclosed area with cattle, you should consider your escape routes — a fence, a tree, or a post.

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