Would you rather go to the dentist or put animals through your handling system? If you've ever considered this question maybe it's time for some help. I was lucky enough to see animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin from Colorado State University speak recently. Dr. Grandin and others have been studying livestock behavior and how it relates to handling facilities. She stressed an animal's first impression is a lasting one. Fear memories can not be erased. They are deep memories and you must do a lot of "teaching" to over come these fears. Handle the animals carefully the first time and it will be easier to handle them later. Squeezes that hurt cattle's necks make them more difficult to get back into the chute and headgate next time.
A new experience can be a big stressor. Introduce new objects or situations slowly and they are attractive to the animal. Something that is novel can be attractive, but can also be a scary thing if it moves or comes at them quickly.
Livestock are sound sensitive. Sounds usually signal danger. Whistles and yelling are strong stressors and only serve to work cattle up.
Visually stock are sensitive to contrast and shadows. They don't want to go into an opening that appears as a dark hole. Handling areas need indirect lighting not bright lights shining into animals faces or casting deep shadows.
Look at what your animals are afraid of and try to remove these stressors from the alleyways and chutes. Details bother animals. Do as Dr. Grandin does and walk through your system at animal level. Little things like a foam cup in the chute, a plastic bottle tied to a post and rattling around or the reflection off a car windshield sending bright light through the gap between fence boards can be the cause of balking. Solid sides work best for chutes eliminating any visual distractions.
Researchers recommend walking through hog finishing pens 10 to 15 seconds per day so animals are use to people and not afraid of you. Walk quietly and enter from different directions each day. This will reduce the fear and therefore the stress of moving around people. Remember fear is a very strong stressor. Growing or producing animals that need to be moved or handled often show improved production if handled quietly. They must have a low stress (fear) first experience.
If your handling facility is frustrating you contact your OMAFRA species specialist for some suggestions. Dr. Grandin's web site (grandin.com) provides some interesting reading mixed with good photos.