Rayner Reckons

Sep 25

Don't switch off around cattle

Posted on Friday, September 25, 2015

I really enjoy working with cattle.  Getting cattle to move through yards, or into new paddocks does take some skill. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a born animal handler.  I reckon the skills you need to work with animals are developed, like any skill, through practice, observation and continually trying to do better.

What I think some people may be born with is a higher degree of patience, as they develop their skills.  I think some people are also more empathetic to cattle or animals, and are willing to work with the animals, trying to understand the animals movements and directing them in the desired direction.  It is important to be patient and to understand the animals you are working with.

Being patient doesn't mean your work has to slow down to a crawl!  Patient in my mind means taking a mental breath and thinking through what you are trying to achieve with the animals you are working with.  It means responding to their actions and anticipating what the animals are likely to do or want to do in response to you, to other people or to their environment.

I reckon its also a bit of self awareness.  Are you actually prepared to take some time, a few breathes to think about things.  To consider the impact your actions might have, and to learn from mistakes or from the past.  

Some people just don't seem to be willing to be patient. And this has created so many issues for them, for their cattle and for the people around them.

If you really want to develop better skills in working with cattle it takes patience, understanding and practice.  I've talked about patience.  So what about understanding?

There are some basic things to understood with cattle.  Firstly cattle are prey animals.  Which means they are used to running away from danger.  They need to be with others, so they can all look for danger, and if they can't get away from the danger, then they will use their size and speed to attack the predator.

Its not rocket science!  We all know that, and everyone wants to talk about flight zones.  The area between an animal and a source of danger or threat.  Some animals have a bigger zone than others.  

Its pretty clear what happens when you step into that zone.  The animal either moves away or does its best to get away.  

But some animals will react differently.  There may be past history or circumstances that cause that animal to take on the source of threat.  It could be a cow with a new calf.  A bull with some cows in a mob.  Or it could be a cow kept in a pen on its own and it is so frightened that everything is a threat.

In the last few months I've heard of two people in NSW seriously injured by bulls.  Now I'm not sure what the circumstances are for both of those incidents, and I reckon its not for me to make an assumption.  What I will say is that often injuries occur when people switch off to their cattle.  

When I say switch off, its not paying attention to what the animals are doing in response to you.  Maybe you switch off because you take things for granted.  Maybe its because you assume your skills are excellent!  Maybe you haven't even switched on because you don't think about the animals as much as you should.  What ever the reason.  All I know is that you shouldn't switch off.

If you are using the animals responses, moving in and out of their flight zone in order to direct them to another place, then changes are you are switched on to the cattle and you can react to animals that might not want to move away and instead want to take you one!  On the other hand if your approach is to push, shout and intimidate your animals, being unaware of how they perceive you as you force them into complying with you, then one day you could find yourself in a dangerous or unpleasant situation.  

So next time you're out with your cattle, try and be more switched on. Be a little patient and think about your skills and the animals reactions to you.  That mental pause for a breath might be enough to turn your cattle chore into a good day out for you, your cattle and for everyone else!

Jan 14

Safely working with cattle

Posted on Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Its great to be back after a short break over Christmas and the New Year.  Starting 2015 has been really exciting with a few new projects.  I've been catching up on some of the agricultural news from around the country and internationally.  One particular story did catch my eye.  

It was about a producer in England who had been forced to cull his herd of cows as a result of their aggression towards himself and his staff.  The story described these particular animals as the German Heck breed,  and were breed in the 1930's and 1940's.  With the links to the Nazi party, the strangeness of the breed and the danger to people this story has had world wide attention!  

I'm not really in any position to make a comment on the animals, the farmer or the story.  Rather it was a story that made me start thinking about handling cattle and the importance of focussing on temperament within a herd.

I reckon temperament is one of the most important things you should be selecting for in your herd.  It is a highly heritable trait.  So focussing on breeding cattle with better temperaments will show improvements within the herd.

There are plenty of ways you can focus on, and select for better temperament.  Within your herd the most obvious starting point is to identify any animals that show aggression towards you or other people.  

These animals really have no place in your herd, and are dangerous.  You should remove them from your herd and if your records are good enough, look at the behaviour of the progeny and consider their temperament in the overall direction of your program.

An objective method of assessing temperament is to record the behaviour of each animal in the crush or the race.  Let each animal come up and stand in the crush or the race by itself.  Note down the ones that stand calmly, the ones that are restless and the ones that can't settle and try to jump or exit the race.

If you do this with every animal you can identify the quiet ones through to the ones with much poorer temperament.

Other methods to assess temperament include a flight speed test.  This basically is two light beams set apart at the end of the crush.  When the animal leaves the crush it breaks the first beam, and then shortly afterwards the second beam.  How quickly it breaks the beams is related to its speed and overall temperament.  Many breeders have used both crush scores and flight speed to identify animals for breeding, and these scores can be submitted for inclusion into EBV records.

Selection for better temperament and removal of individuals are the two key strategies for improving your animals temperament.  However I reckon its just as important to remember that how you handle and treat your animals will also impact on their behaviour.

Cattle are herd animals, and don't like to be left alone, particularly in strange or threatening places. If you do have to put animals in a yard, try and put them with a mate.  This will help them feel more safe.  

Cattle have a flight zone which they rely on to keep them out of danger.  Any perceived threats, including people, results in them moving away.  If they can't move away, such as in the yards, then they often fall back on the only option which is to threaten the thing causing them fear.  This is why formerly quiet animals may suddenly become more anxious or aggressive.

Cows will be very protective of young calves around people and especially dogs.  Again the quietest cow can become very threatening if she perceives her calf is in danger.

So it is important to understand how to work with cattle, to recognise the difference between an animal trying to give itself space from a threat, and an animal that is genuinely aggressive. When you take the time to learn how to work with cattle safely, you can avoid causing yourself and the cow unnecessary stress or anger.  And the ones that are genuinely dangerous, sell them out of your herd as soon as its safe to do so.

Oct 20

A System to Provide Independent Cattle Assessments

Posted on Monday, October 20, 2014

Earlier this year I was undertaking some work in Brisbane.  While I was in town I was contacted by Angus Burnett-Smith who wanted to talk to me about cattle assessment work.  I have to admit I was pleased to be contacted, largely because it seemed like a good chance to meet someone new, and hopefully it might bring some more work towards RaynerAg!

Well I was right on both of those assumptions!  Angus is the brains and energy behind an online livestock marketing system.  In simplest terms the ClassiMate model combines independent assessment of breeding livestock with an online marketing platform for those animals.

The model has proven to be very successful with small ruminant animals, and Angus was keen to discuss with me the opportunity to extend the platform to beef cattle.

It certainly was an exciting proposition.  

There are plenty of methods used in the beef industry to describe cattle. The challenge was to draw on those to develop a system that would allow breeders to be able to list their cattle on line, and for potential buyers to view those cattle with complete confidence in the way those animals had been assessed.

I reckon it was a challenge I had to accept, and I went away and worked with several industry people who have a level of experience and industry knowledge I respect.  Between us we looked at the current industry methods, and considered what traits are most important to assess in breeding animals. 

With a lot of research, discussion and testing, I was able to report back to Angus and the ClassiMate team we had developed a system we are confident in to assess with credibility and repeatability, breeding cattle of both sexes.  

The ClassiMate assessment system assesses structural soundness; temperament; fertility and muscle.  These are the traits that are important in any breeding enterprise, and using these as the basis for selection will certainly drive the performance of any beef business.  

Now that the system has been established the role of RaynerAg will be to provide ClassiMate members with the assessment service so that they can list their animals on the website. 

RaynerAg will not be working for ClassiMate.  I'll provide an independent service (along with the other team members) that is arranged on demand as people require it.

So what happens now?  Well firstly I reckon its important to remember that assessing your animals on their physical merits won't replace the value of EBVs which describe the genetic potential of an animal.  So if you are in BreedPlan I'd encourage you to continue to monitor and record the traits required to contribute to your EBVs.  

However having the opportunity to have your animals independently assessed for their structural soundness, temperament; fertility and muscle can be incredibly beneficial.  

Assessments such as these will allow you to select out animals that are not suited to your environment; to your market specifications or are just not right for your program.  

If you are trying to market your livestock and one option is to advertise your livestock online, providing potential buyers with an independent assessment of your animals can add to your credibility. 

I reckon there will be opportunities for breeders who are looking to try and combine traditional marketing techniques with online marketing.  There would be no reason why bulls in a sale catalogue or females in a feature sale couldn't be accompanied with both their individual EBVs and a ClassiMate score.  That way you address genetic potential and the animal's physical traits at the same time.

I'm pleased I was able to work with a great team to develop this system. Naturally I hope ClassiMate see's new members that are looking to have their cattle assessed!  But I also have to be honest and say I'm pleased that a team of people I respect came together to put some ideas together to have a system in place that will aid beef producers across Australia improve their herds and hopefully move much closer to their owners goals.  

If you are interested in joining ClassiMate you can get in touch with them yourself.  As an independent assessor, my connection with ClassiMate is now purely to be on their list of cattle assessors and to ensure the system used to assess cattle into the future maintains industry relevance and credibility.  I reckon it will work and I think there will be plenty of producers who will gain a lot from both the assessments and the new marketing opportunities. 

Jun 12

What I've learnt from pregnancy testing!

Posted on Thursday, June 12, 2014

Becoming an accredited pregnancy tester of cattle is one of the best decisions I've made so far in my business.  Pregnancy testing certainly isn't glamorous!  Its dirty, smelly, and when you're testing herds in late summer its hot and tiring. 

Having said all that, its pretty amazing what you can learn when you go about it.  

Obviously pregnancy testing will give you a pretty thorough understanding of the fertility levels within a herd, and after a while a snapshot of the district fertility.  

For a producer, knowing the pregnancy rate is vital if you are going to make decisions for the next few months on stocking rate, feed requirements, new bulls, culling unproductive cows and forecasting a cash flow.

For me, actually being involved in the testing has given me some big insights into how I can help producers manage those decisions.  There is nothing like looking at every cow pretty closely to build up a series of recommendations for the management of the herd, nutritional management and selection of the right bulls for the program.

I reckon the practical application of pregnancy testing coupled with a broader management understanding and industry knowledge makes my involvement in the programs direction much more solid.  

Having said that, I've learnt a few more important things.  Much more practical, and I reckon they are worth sharing.

My first question when I am asked to come and do pregnancy testing (after I ask how many cows are we doing) is: 

  • What are your yards like?

How well cattle move through yards basically determines what sort of day I'm going to have!  I charge my pregnancy testing on a per head basis, not on an hourly rate.  So I do like to keep moving which suits me, and it suits the producers I'm working for.

Well designed yards, with a race that allows cattle to move through without turning around and bunching up makes a huge difference!  Having a drafting puns and a forcing pen into the race that encourages cattle to flow smoothly makes so much difference.  

I really notice a difference in the behaviour of the cattle as well.  If they can be moved without hassle, the process seems to be smoother and quicker.  If they have to hunted and pushed, they seem to be much more excitable and this impacts on the time taken to test the animal.

  • What's your crush like?

A good crush is the most important part of handling cattle.  Something that is safe to use, restrains cattle safely, and has a vet gate are to my mind the 3 most important features on a crush.  

Often I am controlling the animals entry into the crush, so I want to have a slide gate, that is smooth and quiet.  I like to have a handle which I can operate to open the bail from the rear of the crush.  I don't like the handles which can unlock and swing down loosely when not in operation.  I reckon, well I know, there are times when you can't catch a beast with those handles, because they've slipped off the lock.

A vet gate is vital, because I have to stand in behind the cow, and I don't want to be kicked or crushed by the animal.  I also need to protect the ultra sound equipment!

Ideally I like the gate to have a spring loaded catch so I can kick the gate shut behind the animal and step in.

I've also learnt the importance of WD40!  Spraying some on the catches and slides at the start makes a huge difference to the process.

I generally find now, I look at yards in a completely different way.  I'm looking for jam points in the flow, and for the way the crush works.  I can pretty quickly work out if the day will work well.

The great thing about these practical lessons is they have enhanced my understanding of good yard design and good handling practices.  It has helped a lot recently with two clients rebuilding their yards.

The other thing I've learnt, is the importance of selecting for temperament and for educating your cattle. We know temperament is a highly heritable trait.  So removing the cattle with poor temperament will lead to improvements within the herd.  

But I reckon you can't rely only on genetic selection!  Cattle can be educated to work through yards, to flow through races, and to work through a crush without getting too upset or stirred up.  Quiet cattle, or at least ones which flow through the yards make pregnancy testing a more efficient process.

Its not all about me!  Better temperament has positive effects on general handling and most importantly on eating quality.  These are vital traits every herd should be looking to select for and work on, regardless of your breed choices.

As I said earlier, gaining accreditation to be a pregnancy tester of cattle is one of the best things I've done with RaynerAg. 

I love that I'm providing a practical service with immediate results.  More importantly I value the chance to use this derive to build plans with owners and managers which can lead to improved productivity and profitability. 

And I've learnt a few practical tips about yards and crush that I can apply in quite a few situations!  I reckon that has to be a win win situation!



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