We have recently taken up the RSPCA Beef Cattle Challenge (see: https://rspca.org.au/what-we-do/working-farming-industries/beef-cattle-welfare) because we believe in setting the highest standards of treatment and care for animals that we own.
As part of the RSPCA’s policy of improving the welfare of beef cattle they have set out their vision for desirable cattle management: (https://rspca.org.au/sites/default/files/website/what-we-do/working-with-farming-industry/RSPCA_Beef_Cattle_OurVision_Sep2013.pdf). In this document they list what practices they want to see adopted and the ones they disapprove. We agree with the great majority of recommendations but one we cannot accept is: “5.2 Electric prodders are not used or carried..”
We have approached the RSPCA to oppose this recommendation and in this post we will explain why.
For many years we never used electric prodders on our cattle because we had seen them misused. With good facilities and better stock handling methods, as espoused by Temple Grandin, stock can be easily and safely handled with minimal stress. We strongly oppose the misuse of prodders but there are times when they are invaluable and training cattle is one such time. [In getting ideas for this post we found an article from NSW DPI (reference below) that has the same opinion.]
Our cows are seriously dead quiet. They have been bred and handled for years to achieve this. Flight speed from the crush is minimal and their flight zones are also very small. With experienced cattle one operator can move cattle up the race while the other operates the crush and vaccinates etc. However, with young cattle not used to going up the race it might require the crush operator leaving the crush and also going behind the animals to move them up.
Our cattle are easily handled except when they have to go somewhere they have not been before, such as up a loading ramp. Traditional encouragement methods, such as hitting with a piece of poly pipe or tail twisting, are ineffective so we have resorted to an electric prodder.
We got to thinking whether we could use our horse training principles to better train our cattle to move up a race following the animals in front.
We train our horses using the “pressure / release” training system. Essentially there are two methods used to train animals. Positive reinforcement is where you give a reward, such as a carrot, when the animal gives the right response. Negative reinforcement is where you apply something like light pressure on a lead attached to a halter but immediately reward the correct response by removing the pressure. You release the pressure when the horse moves just one foot in the required direction.
Positive and negative reinforcement both have a place in training. Sensitivity, timing and consistency are absolutely essential to get good results.
When our cattle are about three months of age we carry a prodder when handling them. If a calf does not go forward in the race when there is space to do so we touch it on the rump with the prodder and keep the prodder there (no zap at this stage). If the calf moves forward we remove the touch but if it stops again we replace the prodder on the rump. If the calf takes a step backwards we immediately apply a minimal duration zap. If the calf goes forward we remove the prodder but touch again if it stops. We repeat the process until it can go no further forward. In this way the cattle are rewarded for moving up to the animal in front and we have found that just one training session makes a great difference to subsequent behaviour.
The prodder removes the need for shouting, waving arms and stock canes or other stressful disruptions.
Never use a prodder zap on cattle at the back of a mob when they can go no further forward. This will be extremely stressful as you are pushing for something that the beast cannot do. You will be asking to get kicked.
Cattle should be taught that there is only one way out of the yards and that is up the race and out the crush. There is normally a positive reinforcement in our herd – once through the crush they go back into a grassy paddock with their mates.
Temple Grandin: https://www.grandin.com/behaviour/principles/flight.zone.html