Improving Heifer Handling

An understanding of animal psychology goes a long way towards improving heifer handling. Flight zone refers to a heifers range of vision or their personal space. A heifers flight zone will decrease with frequent gentle handling. Consistency when working with calves will set the stage for easier heifer management.

Basic bovine science 

How much do you know about the basic sight and hearing senses of calves and heifers? In spite of the danger of boring the folks that already know this stuff, let’s do a basic review. First, calves have wide-angle vision. The breadth is estimated at around 300 degrees. Bovines use this field of vision to define their “personal” space. This is called a “flight zone.” In addition, it seems pretty well established that bovines possess color vision.

Second, calves and heifers are quite sensitive to high frequency noises. Compared to people whose highest sensitivity is roughly between 1000 to 3000 Hz., bovine highest sensitivity is around 8000 Hz.

More general rules 

1. When a person moves into a heifer’s flight zone she will normally try to move away. The size of a heifer’s flight zone will decrease slowly if she is handled frequently and gently.

2. Previous experiences of a calf will affect how she will react to future handling. These memories may persist many months. Fear memories are significant in increasing flight zones.

3. Calves can readily tell the difference between two situations and make choices to avoid the more stressful situation.

4. Calves and heifers are sensitive to changes in color and texture.

5. Moving objects and people seen through sides of a chute can frighten heifers.

6. Novelty can be a strong stressor. Repeated exposure will reduce the novelty effect.

Applications for calves

Calving pen care is our first opportunity to demonstrate gentle calf handling. Having a good supply of clean dry bath towels is a first step. One or more towels can be used to dry and massage a wet calf. Aim for a hair coat that is fluffy dry. Even a dry calf can benefit from a minute’s massage with a dry towel to encourage blood circulation.

The time spent feeding colostrum is another chance to reinforce person-calf contact. Even calves fed with an esophageal tube feeder can benefit from a few moments of attention. Our goal with these just-born calves is to stimulate them. Get them dry. Get them standing up. Get them to walk around. Feed a bottle from beside the calf rather than in front. That way she can lean against you and you can rub her back line. Scrub your hands back and forth on their sides. Stimulate blood flow. Take advantage of these opportunities on day one to begin minimizing a heifer’s flight zone with positive person-calf contact.

Preweaned calves raised in individual hutches or pens can benefit from frequent and gentle handling. This will help develop smaller flight zones. They will have fewer “fear memories.” Most of us have figured out that roughly handled calves that are chronically stressed don’t do as well as ones that are handled gently and patiently. Part of good handling is taking the opportunity with very young calves to touch them as often as possible.

Try to keep things consistent. Calves don’t need novelty. The same people providing care. The same sounds from day-to-day. The same times for feeding. A consistent bedding routine. Some folks argue for having consistent colors. It is known that cattle will balk at an abrupt change in color in their environment. We have seen calves that normally have a very small flight zone behave fearfully on rainy days when the caretakers have on bright yellow rain suits instead of dull blue or brown clothing. Some calf raisers even go so far as to insist on just one color of feeding pails. While it might be true that one color is preferred over another, because calves are quite adaptable it’s more likely true that a consistent color is more important. But since calves are attracted to light perhaps lighter colors are better than darker ones?

Applications for heifers

As calves move into groups we have the opportunity to choose how they will be handled. The physical move from hutches or pens into group housing can be either a low or high stress event. Calves can be handled roughly and impatiently contributing to yet another fear memory. Or, they can be handled carefully and patiently helping to maintain a small flight zone.

If heifers have to be loaded on a trailer or truck with loading chutes we should give some thought to the kinds of sides on these chutes. Solid sided chutes are much less stressful than ones where the heifers can see through them. Also, using the same equipment each time heifers are transported should reduce stress as well.

General Rules of Bovine Behavior 

8. Bovines are herd animals. They don’t like to be separated from their herd mates.

9. Groups of heifers that have body contact remain calmer.

10. Unexpected loud or novel noises can be highly stressful to bovines.

11. Bovines readily adapt to reasonable levels of continuous sound such as white noise or music.

12. Bovines exposed to a variety of sounds (radio with talk and music) may have a reduced reaction to sudden noises.

13. Calves and heifers readily adapt to handling even if the events may be stressful initially (going into scales, going through a chute, being locked into headlocks, transporting).

14. Heifers can be trained to voluntarily accept restraint with relatively low levels of stress.

15. A small amount of inconsistency in care and handling may reduce calves’ stress response to new sights and sounds.

16. Consistent poor handling of heifers can create chronic stress.

Applications for Moving Heifers

Heifers like to stay together. A heifer separated from her herdmates gets very anxious. Her flight zone increases dramatically. This needs to be considered when building or remodeling facilities. When only group pens are available lots of workers are required to isolate and drive individual animals away from the group. When a sorting chute and pen are available the heifers are mechanically isolated and released one at a time into the appropriate group with a minimum of labor. Equally notable, with good sorting facilities the heifers are only minimally stressed by sorting. That means fewer sick heifers. That means fewer fear memories impressed on heifers that result in larger flight zones as adult cows (1).

Just a side note about chutes. When heifers cannot see very far past the front of a squeeze chute (no more than about four feet), they are less likely to charge the headlock. Any kind of solid surface that blocks sight will work – even a temporary screen. Avoiding the violent “Charge! Slam!” entry can reduce bruising and injuries.

Applications for Noise

Everyone working with heifers has seen them spook. Often we say, “I wonder what spooked them. I didn’t hear anything.” Remember that their hearing is different than ours. Our hearing goes up to around 3000 Hz. Their hearing goes well up into the range of 4000-8000 Hz.

One way to deal with unexpected noises in and around heifer facilities is to provide reasonable levels of nearly continuous sound. Heifers housed near operations involving loaders and large trucks are more likely to have reduced reactions to loud noises. In contrast, heifers reared in an isolated location are more likely to spook in response to loud noises. Providing a radio tuned to a commercial station with both talk and music is one way to accomplish this adaptive response in heifers.

Applications for Training

“An animal’s stress reaction to a handling procedure such as transport or restraint depends on three factors: genetics, individual differences and previous experiences.” (2)

Consistent regular gentle handling of calves and heifers can reduce stress. Recent research reported teaching heifers to adapt to being restrained in a squeeze chute. After only eight times through the chute over a number of days the heifers were more willing to enter the chute without urging. Also, they were more likely to remain calm and stand still while restrained. They can learn and adapt even to an event that is initially stressful. We are reminded that gentle and quiet handling was maintained throughout the research (3).

In contrast to these observations we also know that repetitive rough and loud handling of heifers can cause acute chronic stress. Chronically stressed calves and heifers have depressed immune systems. Compared to non-stressed animals they are more likely to require treatment for disease, especially respiratory illness.

Calf Raisers’ Tip


  • How about permission to be less than perfect? Sounds just a little sinful. But animal behavior scientists tell us that a small amount of inconsistency in care and handling of calves can be beneficial! It reduces their novelty stress responses. That could mean healthier calves. So, go out and be just a little inconsistent and feel sinful!
  • We want young calves to start exploring starter grain as early as possible. Normally because we want to change this grain frequently we only put a small amount in their pails. Small calves have a hard time reaching the bottom of these pails. Pam’s solution is to drop a plate into the top of a 10-quart pail. For the first few weeks the starter grain just sits on top of the plate close to the top within easy reach for the calf. As the calf matures the plate is taken out and pail is used normally.



Grandin, Temple Adapting Bovine Behavior to Improve Performance

Grandin, Temple, Restraint of Livestock Proceedings of the Animal Behavior and the Design of Livestock and Poultry Systems International Conference, 1995.

Roenfeldt, Shirley, 3 areas where you can improve animal handling in Dairy Herd Management 38:9 (September 01) pp. 38-41.


Attica Veterinary Associates

Attica Veterinary Associates

Attica Veterinary Associates provide veterinary services and products, independent consultation in dairy management, nutrition and performance, and trainings.

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