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WEBINAR RECAP: Dairy Stockmanship Skills

Oct 25, 2016

WEBINAR RECAP: Dairy Stockmanship Skills

The Merck Animal Health and FARM Program Animal Care webinar series kicked off with arguably one of the most important topics related to proper dairy cattle care and well-being: stockmanship.

Dr. Ben Bartlett, DVM, former Michigan State University Extension educator and current livestock producer, shared his expertise on low-stress handling and emphasized that understanding “why cows act like cows” will help to achieve successful and repeatable sound dairy stockmanship skills throughout the entire workforce.

As with any aspect of management, good dairy stockmanship starts with a team approach, proper training and dedicated time to getting it right. “Animal handling is just like swimming. You can’t just jump into the pool for the first time and expect to know how to swim. Stockmanship, like swimming, requires practice,” said Bartlett.

The principle of practice and teamwork doesn’t only apply to the managers and employees but the cattle as well. Animals need to be given time to practice what is expected of them when being handled because, unlike humans, there is no verbal communication available to express expectations. Cow communication begins with understanding the cows’ flight zone, or personal space. Each animal’s flight zone is different but by understanding where and how to engage the zone and points of balance, the animal will move where and how you would like for them to with only minimal verbal communication.

Bartlett also stressed that it will take time and continued training for a workforce, especially those with limited former cattle experience, to learn these invaluable stockmanship skills. Cows form their trust of, and reaction to, humans from their first experiences and do not forget adverse treatment quickly. There is strong scientific support that low stress handling and proper stockmanship skills are not only the right thing to do for the animals’ welfare but also for their productivity and, in turn, the profitability of the dairy.  Therefore, training caretakers to handle cows in a calm, controlled and gentle manner is essential.

Bartlett also provided the three primary reasons why “cows act like cows,” which are critical for caretakers to understand when working with cattle. The reasons ‘cows act like cows’ are because of their anatomy, their instincts/evolution as a species, and their life experiences.

Cows see and hear differently than humans and therefore, process sights and sounds differently. They rely primarily on panoramic vision which only allows them to see the majority of their environment with very limited depth perception. Bartlett used the example of walking without being able to see your feet. Due to this unique vision as well as their evolution as ‘prey’ animals, cattle prefer to follow others, walk into light instead of dark and flee before exploring what danger may exist.

The final, and possibly most important aspect for animal caretakers to take into account when learning proper stockmanship skills, is that of the animals’ experiences. Cattle have great memories and are also able to understand your feelings and body language. Bartlett reminds us that the more positive interactions cattle have with caretakers, the better their memories will be and, in turn, the better they will respond when they are handled in a slow, low-stress manner.

“The goal of sound stockmanship is to establish a long-term partnership between humans and cattle,” said Bartlett. As such, routine training for employees and practice of these skills is essential. Training and documentation of proper stockmanship is also a key area that the FARM Animal Care Program encourages as a best management practice on all dairy farms.

For additional stockmanship training resources, FARM and the Merck Animal Health team encourage the use of FARM Program resource materials that can be found by visiting  Additionally, the Merck Dairy C.A.R.E 365 training modules are available at

This webinar is part the of the Merck Dairy C.A.R.E & FARM Animal Care Webinar series. You can view the FAQs and full schedule here.