10 tips for safe cattle handling during TB testing

Cattle are often large, heavy, fast and strong. Combine that mix with TB testing – a situation that may be unfamiliar and stressful for the animal – and it can be challenging, and even dangerous, for the people involved.

Farmers have a legal responsibility to present their animals safely for a TB test. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) now places much greater emphasis on the correct procedures being applied during testing.

That includes provision of well designed and constructed handling facilities that are correctly maintained and operated, suitable for the size, category and temperament of cattle being tested.

See also: Custom-made cattle handling system improves speed and safety

Livestock handling expert Miriam Parker says presenting animals safely for a test reduces risk to handlers and stress on the animals. It also improves the efficiency of the job and the quality of the test.

“There can be situations where vets or testers will hesitate to visit a farm if they know from experience that the facilities are not good enough,” she says.

Below, she gives her tips on some of the important dos and don’ts.

1. Avoid using new facilities for the first time for a TB test

If stock are going to be run through handling for the first time on the day of the test, remember to have some empathy with them. Anticipate they might struggle because of the novelty of the situation.

Ideally, familiarise cattle with the facilities so they associate them with positive or neutral events.

A quick rehearsal, running the cattle through before the test, is never a bad thing.

Regular weighing, for example, is not only good for the business but is also a neutral event – all the cattle have to do is walk through without being jabbed or restrained for a period of time.

2. Keep as ‘normal’ a routine as possible for the animal

The big take-home message here is to know what is “normal” for your cattle and try to stick to that as much as possible.

Having extra people present is going to be a trigger to the animal that something different is about to happen.

Cattle will be alert to “stranger danger”, for example, people with a novel smell of disinfectant.

It makes good sense for the testing team to keep out of the way as much as practically possible and leave the handling to familiar farm staff.

3. A crush that restrains the whole body is the safest option

No animal likes being grabbed solely by the throat, so we should not expect cattle to enter a crush, have their heads clamped and stand still.

Cattle are likely to react and fight to escape if restraint is poor, uncomfortable or painful, and they feel they can escape.

A squeeze crush or other models that “hug” an animal instead of holding it by the throat have obvious benefits.

If the cost of a decent new crush is what is holding you back, there are contractors you can pay to provide facilities.

Alternatively, if your neighbour has a good crush, it might be worth having a discussion about hiring it.

4. Anchor the crush properly

A crush must be properly secured or anchored so it cannot move, tip over, or be taken for a walk. If it is not, this will be a red line for testing teams.

Make sure the crush is the correct one for your animals.

In the small print of the manufacturer’s guidance, there is often a weight recommendation, where a particular model is only suitable for animals up to a specified weight.

Don’t expect a lightweight crush to stay in place if you put a bull through it – it is not designed for this.

5. Maintain the crush floor

The crush needs a stable, non-slip floor to reduce the risk of animals slipping and falling and creating additional stress.

The integrity of the floor is also key. If a crush is being regularly used and the floor is dirty, are you confident that it is not the muck that is holding the floor together?

When buying new, beware of bargains and check the quality of the floor attachment.

It is often not the money you spend on a crush, but how it has been looked after, that is key.

A farm might have a 70-year-old crush that was well built and is well maintained, and it will be better and safer than a new one that is flimsily built and been poorly maintained.

6. Ensure good access to the animal’s test site

Think about the design of the crush: does it give the tester access to the part of the animal they need to get to?

In a high TB area where there is frequent testing, it is even more important to think about how good a crush is for this job. It has got to work for the vet, so speak to them about what they need.

7. Good front and back restraint are important

A crush needs a good front catch mechanism, whether that is self-locking, scissor or squeeze action.

Ideally, use farm staff to operate the catching mechanism to prevent the risk of the visitor getting fingers trapped or releasing an animal unintentionally.

It is your crush, and if it has a few quirks, then you are the best person to operate it.

Conventional crushes need a back gate or bar restraint to prevent the risk of animals kicking out and running or jumping backwards.

8. Provide a protected working area

Testers and handlers should have a protected working area. This is a cattle-free zone where the tester can keep themselves, the samples and the paperwork away from cattle, and to concentrate on the job at hand.

If a cow tramples paperwork or samples, it will mean starting the process all over again, so give them a boundary.

9. Take regular breaks to maintain concentration

To stay focused when working on big handling events like TB testing, it is a good to plan in agreed breaks, say, every 45min, rather than expect everyone involved to carry on.

Also, if an animal is playing up or not co-operating, give them a break. Standing back for 10 seconds to let them refocus is often all that is needed.

10. Post-test analysis is valuable

After a test, be a little self-reflective. Ask yourself: “What did we do well? What didn’t go as well, and is it something we can fix?’’

If something needs improving, act on it straight away, rather than waiting until the morning of the next test.