Do you see what a calf sees? When it comes to moving calves, what causes them to put on the brakes

Understanding the calf’s natural behaviour, their perspective on the world, and letting animals choose to move, rather than forcing them, are key to smooth and stress-free handling for calves and handlers.

Young calves haven’t developed a strong herd instinct yet. Instead of moving a herd of calves, calves should be moved in smaller groups of two to three, so that each calf can be given individual attention.

Young calves don’t move quickly. They may not yet be sure of their feet and will be stopping frequently to investigate their surroundings. The best way to keep calves moving is to minimize distractions. Walk the path you will be moving the calves along and try to see it from the calf’s perspective. Anytime the flooring changes, there is a stray bucket, an open gate, or coat hanging off a pen, the calves may stop. Try to remove any distractions as much as possible. When the route seems clear, move a group of calves and watch where they stop or get distracted. Remove the distractions before moving the next group.

What not to do: A common mistake is handling calves roughly. Shoving, lifting calves without supporting their full weight, dragging or pulling on calves are very labour-intensive for handlers and are likely to harm the calf without actually achieving the goal – movement of the calf. Using an electric prod is not only ineffective, but using an electric prod on calves under three months of age is prohibited by the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Veal Cattle (the Code). When an electric prod is used on a calf, the calf typically freezes – which is exactly what we are trying to avoid when handling calves. No matter the cattle age, electric prods should not be a part of routine handling.

It seems obvious, but a calf won’t move if it doesn’t have space to go. No amount of encouragement can make a calf move if it is blocked in by other calves, walls, or equipment. Always ensure there is a clear path in front of the calf.

Change in footing: Calves will hesitate or stop moving when there is a change in footing. Walking from a dry, even surface onto a slippery or uneven floor will cause calves to slow down or stop to evaluate the risk. There is usually a big change in flooring between a trailer and the loading ramp, so allow calves time to adjust to this change.

Calves will adapt their walking pace based on the footing. Consider using a textured material like limestone, grit, or saw dust/shavings if you know the flooring surface may be slippery for the calves. Using grooved concrete flooring adds stability for calves. 

Light intensity change: This is a major cause of balking or slowing down when moving calves in the barn or loading them onto a truck. Most barns will be within 50 to 100 Lux. Outside, even on a cloudy day, it can easily measure 1500 Lux (15 to 30 times brighter). Just like humans, this will require a few seconds for the calf to adjust its eyes. 

Shadows: Objects or people may cast shadows on walls or the floor in front of calves. This will draw the calf’s attention and cause balking. Cattle don’t have great depth perception, so anytime there are shadows on the ground or the flooring changes, calves will stop and move their heads up and down to attempt to assess whether the shadow is just a shadow or if it is a gap in the floor they are going to fall down. Good lighting in cattle movement areas can prevent shadows that worry calves.

Noise: Sudden noises or yelling will cause nervousness in calves. Yelling at calves is not an effective handling method and will only cause further frustrations and probably more yelling. Avoid turning equipment on and off during handling.

People: This one is the most common! Either the people handling the calves or people in the path of the calves. Their attitude, position and clothing will have an effect. Remember that you can make the difference. Being calm and consistent is always the most effective way to handle calves.

A little bit of planning and a good helping of patience can help make calf movement go smoothly. Whether moving calves around the barn or loading or unloading a trailer, understanding how calves see and respond to their environment will make calf movement easier for everyone.