Organic livestock handling techniques

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by Catie Joyce-Bulay

Principles and practices of organic livestock handling was the topic of a recent Farm Training Project workshop, a series of webinars put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Led by Jacki Martinez Perkins, MOFGA’s organic dairy and livestock specialist, the workshop covered handling techniques and safety tips for fowl, sheep, pigs and bovines and went over the basic health exam and how to give some common treatments for ruminants.

Martinez Perkins, who has a background in commercial dairy production, first went over some basic handling guidelines. She said these six tips are good basics for any new employees to understand and sign off on:

  • When handling animals, remain calm. Take a minute to center yourself because animals pick up on anxiety.
  • Since livestock are usually prey animals, take a minute to see things from their perspective, visually, taking note of any blind spots the animals may have.
  • Babies grow up to be big, so handle them that way. Whatever manners you want them to have as adults, practice as babies.
  • Don’t act aggressively toward any animals.
  • When in close quarters, stay at least a foot away. The kick won’t hurt as much.
  • If you control the head, you control the animal.

Using Bison Ridge Farm in Albion, Maine, as an example, Martinez Perkins said when setting up a handling facility, think about flow and lighting. “Prey animals react really strongly to light contrast,” she said. “If there’s a shadow or light right where you want them to go they’re going to stop and look at it.”

Martinez Perkins used photos of herself handling animals at Bison Ridge and Misty Brook Farm, a 600-acre certified organic farm in Albion that produces grass-fed dairy and beef, veal, lamb, pork, eggs and grains. Before COVID-19, MOFGA originally planned to host the workshop on the farm with live demonstrations. Now, most of the videos of the handling demonstrations are available for free on MOFGA’s YouTube channel.

“In general, move slowly and stay calm,” said Martinez Perkins of working with fowl. “Your fingers tend to look like claws, so keep them cupped.” Fowl are usually easier to catch in the dark. She typically has the most difficulty catching Guinea hens, and recommends using a fishing net. Ducks and geese can be treated similar to cattle by funneling them, then tucked under an arm to work with.

When handling chickens, lace their feet comfortably between your fingers. They will stay calm if you hold on to their legs and tuck the body under your arm. In this position you can trim spurs or flight feathers and do a health check. Raised scales and scabs on their feet indicate mites, which can be treated by covering them in Vaseline for a couple of weeks. Check the color and quality of their eyes and nostrils. If they look pale pink or red, you need to call the vet or state lab. Martinez Perkins also went over how to treat pasty butt in chicks by giving the area a warm bath and towel drying.

“Sheep are calmer in large groups and hard to single out,” said Martinez Perkins. She demonstrated the four steps involved in tipping sheep for sheering and hoof trimming. The animal needs to be on the hip bone to relax. If a urine sample is needed, she noted covering their nose to make them urinate.

Bo Dennis, the webinar moderator and MOFGA’s new farmer program specialist, added that it is also a good time to check the sheep for worms in this position. FAMACHA scoring cards are available to help assess barber poll worms, said Dennis, who has a master’s in sustainable food systems and raises Katahdin hair sheep in Monroe.

Martinez Perkins advised housing or feeding pigs near the trailer that will take them to slaughter; it’s even better if the trailer doubles as their house. A funnel tunnel can also be built. “They are really intelligent and suspicious of anything new,” she said.

She also detailed how to castrate piglets and bovines. These demonstration videos are available by emailing MOFGA.

Perkins, who has an associate degree in dairy farm management from Vermont Technical College and has spent many years in the industry, went into the basics of a ruminant health exam. Handy tools for the exam include a stethoscope and thermometer.

“When you walk up to the animal, look to see if their nose is moist, eyes are bright, ears are warm and their coat looks fluffy,” she said. Cold ears in cows may indicate not enough calcium. Cow licks on its fur are a sign of lice and scabby skin is a sign of ringworm. If there is too much manure on its coat, the cow will have trouble staying warm.

Next, pinch their shoulder blades. “They should move away from you,” she said. “If they don’t it could mean they ate a sharp piece of metal.”

Using a stethoscope, listen for heart, lung and digestive health. The cow’s rumen is on its left side. You should hear and see it stirring. If the rumen is not working, one worry is a twisted stomach.

She gave tips on taking anal temperature and how to get a cow to urinate, which may be necessary to check for ketosis, especially after giving birth.

Tips for getting a cow to hold still include holding its tail straight up, which tilts its pelvis, making it harder to kick. You can also push the cow up against a wall and hold the flank above its leg. “Cows will still kick – this just slows them down a little and gives them something else to think about,” said Martinez Perkins. “If it’s a super nervous animal you can do both.”

She explained techniques to administer a bolus with a balling gun and tipping a cow using a rope arrangement, and concluded with a reminder to provide playthings “even for animals you don’t think are super smart.” She gave an example of a bell attached to a tree that one of the bulls enjoys playing with.

To request a recording of this webinar, along with handouts and videos, email Martinez Perkins at jperkins@mofga.org.

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