Stress Associated with Cattle Handling Can Impact BRD and Producer Profits

The Yosemite Sam vs. Bugs Bunny Approach

By Tony Moravec, DVM, Merial Large Animal Veterinary Services

Cattle handling techniques can impact many facets of your cattle operation, including stress within the herd, which can lead to bovine respiratory disease (BRD).1

Most producers have witnessed the “Yosemite Sam” approach to cattle handling, or some variation of it. This is the highly vocal individual yelling and screaming while working cattle. Unfortunately, this approach can easily rob the producer of profits, as well as some dignity.

How? Let me explain, Doc…


The immune system of cattle is similar to that of humans. The base component of the immune system is the body’s white blood cells. White blood cells respond to chemical signals released from the site of wounds, or even chemicals released from the brain or adrenal glands. These chemicals tell the white blood cells where to go and what to do.

Cattle are prey. They fear aggression and abrupt changes and loud noises because they feel threatened – especially from a hollering foreman who wants to hurry the cattle in and treat them as quickly as possible. The culmination of these fears is called stress.

Stress can cause the immune system in an animal to work less efficiently, and even suppress the immune response in the animal.2

During times of high stress, cattle are likely to use most of their energy running away from the offending source of that stress, such as a loud-yelling cowboy. Their survival mechanism launches into high gear, while the immune system can unfortunately fall into neutral. Viruses and bacteria present in the body can then become an established infection in vulnerable areas like the lungs.3

This is why cattle and humans can get sick after feeling stressed.


Cattle usually respond to visual cues, eye contact and body positioning more favorably than loud vocal instruction. Deliberate and calculated actions and body positions, as well as a quiet-as-a-bunny demeanor, can help tremendously.1

In my travels across the United States, I have been fortunate to visit many cattle operations. From Paulina, Oregon to Kissimmee, Florida, I have found that the operations that use minimal vocal noise – and avoid the zealous use of whips and cattle prods – tend to have healthier-appearing cattle.

Call it coincidence; I call it good medicine.

But to say these operations have no BRD would be incorrect. They deal with BRD, but the difference is in the way they approach it. I am willing to bet that morbidity, mortality and re-pull rates are significantly lower, based upon a low-stress approach to handling their herds.

Simple steps to low-stress cattle handling begin with the handler. Turn down your volume. And work with a positive attitude.

But that’s NOT all, folks.

Try using visual cues and body positions to direct the cattle to where they need to go. For example, a good friend and colleague of mine once told me cattle “crave to see you.” So, the next time you walk cattle down an alleyway to a pen located, say, on the right side, follow them – on their right side – or the same side of the destination pen. According to my colleague, they will keep one eye on you at all times and will instinctively turn into the pen when the opening presents itself. It seems counter-intuitive, but it can work.


While there are several fine treatments for BRD, prevention remains the best option for success. A preconditioning program that includes an initial vaccination against respiratory infections and a booster prior to weaning not only helps curb incidences of BRD, but it also helps producers reap in premiums at the marketplace.4

Savvy buyers know that preconditioned cattle have a better chance of defending against the common BRD bugs, so they are willing to pay a premium for them. Some sellers may see preconditioning as a labor-intensive, unnecessary expense, while others see it as an opportunity to add value – and profits – to their bottom line.

As a veterinarian and animal advocate, I fully believe that preconditioning and low-stress cattle handling are not only monetarily worth it for the cattle producer – they are simply the right things to do for the health of the cattle.

Invest in training yourself and your operation’s cattle handlers. Maybe attend a conference or watch a webinar highlighting low-stress cattle handling techniques. Or contact your veterinarian or local extension agent to see if experts can make an on-site visit to train your staff. Most importantly, just take the time to learn.

Yosemite Sam is a fun character to watch, if only to see him fail time and time again. But as cattle producers, we have the opportunity to change how we approach cattle at every interaction. Take a page out of the Bugs Bunny playbook – be quiet, alert, sensitive and calculated, and you may be surprised at the results.

About Merial

Merial is a world-leading, innovation-driven animal health company, providing a comprehensive range of products to enhance the health, well-being and performance of a wide range of animals. Merial employs approximately 6,200 people and operates in more than 150 countries worldwide with close to €2 billion of sales in 2013.

Merial is a Sanofi company.

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©2015 Merial, Inc., Duluth, GA. All rights reserved. RUMILGN1474 (01/15)

  1. Smith SM, Beus C, Nelson D. Cattle Handling to Minimize the Incidence of Bovine Respiratory Disease. WSU Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine Extension. Available at: Cattle Handling To Minimize The Incidence of BRD Accessed January 14, 2015.
  2. Cooke R. Overview of the Cattle Immune System. Oregon State University Beef Cattle Library. 2010; 1-5.
  3. Hodgson PD, Aich P, Manuja A, Hokamp K, Roche FM, Brinkman FSL, Potter A, Babiuk LA, Griebel PJ. Effect of Stress on Viral-Bacterial Synergy in Bovine Respiratory Disease. Comp Funct Genomics. 2005;6: 244-250.
  4. Avant RK, Ward CE, Lalman DL. Economic Value of Preconditioning Feeder Calves. Oklahoma State University Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. 2014;1-4.