I have spent hours working on this article. I've agonized over it, revised it, rewritten it, and I have had several close friends read it. I feel that this topic is a very important one that deserves our full attention (by 'our' I am referring to myself and other animal health professionals). My hope is that this article will give those who work with cattle some useful information, and those who don't but would like to some valuable insight.
One of the many things I enjoy about my profession is the opportunity to visit different ranches. In fact I get to visit LOTS of different ranches, each one with its own way of moving and handling cattle. To be sure, I don't think I have ever seen two ranches that do things exactly the same way. Each one has its own unique blend of techniques and facilities to get the job done, though they usually all share a few commonalities. For instance, I remember going to a ranch just outside of town to do some pregnancy checks, and the rancher's daughter had brought some of her high school friends out to help. Some of these girls had never been around cattle before, so in an effort to distill things down to an easy to understand level the rancher's daughter handed one of the girls an electric cattle prod and said, "here, when my dad starts yelling at you press the button and touch the cows with the end . . ." I couldn't help but laugh because she had very succinctly described how it was done on far too many cattle operations; lots of yelling, lots of confusion, lots of electricity, and lots of stress for both man and beast. There are, however, a few practices and designs that tend to get the job done with less stress on the cattle and fewer headaches for the handlers. However, in order to understand these practices and designs, it is first necessary to understand a few basic principles about cattle.
Natural Cattle Behavior:
First and foremost, cattle are a prey species that live in herds. In order to understand cattle behavior, it is important to understand these two basic facts, because they dictate how cattle process the world around them. Most of the behaviors that frustrate the would be stock handler stem from an inadequate understanding of how cattle think. Cattle have not been blessed with many of the defenses that come standard on other animals, but they use the ones they do have quite effectively. For instance, cattle only have a lower set of incisors so biting their predators isn't really an option. Instead they gore, bludgeon, and blow snot with their massive heads that sometimes have horns. Cattle are designed to thrive on poor quality forages grown in rough terrain; a key component of this design is a rumen that can hold upwards of 50 gallons of material supported by short, muscular, cloven-hooved limbs. The trade off to this design is a greatly decreased lung capacity and an awkward loping run that makes flight only a slightly more desirable option to fight. Their stout figure also makes cattle pretty easy to spot out in the open; they aren't as stealthy as other herbivores like deer or elk. However, their short muscular legs do give them the ability to kick a perceived attacker into next week, and they certainly have a personality for confrontation. Their immune system has an unmatched capacity for fighting off infection, so they can take a pretty good licking from a predator, deliver a crushing response, and have at least a fair chance of survival. All of these factors have created an animal that can be stubborn, belligerent, and aggressive if needs be, especially when protecting their offspring.
Being a prey species, their eyes are set on the sides of their head giving them nearly a 360 degree field of vision when their heads are lowered to graze. The trade-off here, however, is a decreased ability to perceive depth and distances, and a blind spot directly in front of their faces and behind their tail. These blind spots will often cause cattle to balk at openings that are directly in front of them, and are also part of the reason why cattle tend not to run directly away from a threat but rather circle around it. Another reason for the circling pattern is that cattle find strength in numbers, and when separated from the main group they will attempt to double back at the first opportunity to run back to the herd. Cows see colors very differently from humans. They have a much higher percentage of rod receptors in their retinas than cone receptors, making them more sensitive to shades of black and white. They also have a reflective membrane in their retinas called the tapetum lucidum, which coupled with their higher number of rod receptors gives them much better night vision than humans. Being herd animals, they have a well established social order and a group of cows will generally have a 'boss cow' in the middle directing traffic. They also tend to group together when pressured, which is nice if you are trying to gather them together out on the prairie, but can make sorting individuals away from the herd challenging. Cattle have highly sensitive hearing and skin sensation, so much so that they can hear the sound of a twig breaking a mile away, and can pinpoint the location of a gnat on their back with their tail. Their tails can be vicious towards larger pests as well, especially when soaked with manure and urine.
Despite assertions by many cattle owners to the contrary, cattle are actually very intelligent and have a keen memory. If they go through the chutes and get poked, prodded, and yelled at, they will surely resist going through the chutes on every subsequent attempt. To their credit, they are not very vindictive, though again I am sure there are many cattle owners who would disagree with me on that as well. I say they are not vindictive, because I don't think cows remember a fearful or painful experience and then behave in such a way so as to repay the fear and pain. More likely, I think, they remember fearful and painful experiences then behave in such a way so as to prevent them from happening again. I think it is important to make this distinction, because too many times cattle handlers take things personal when cattle get on the fight, or stubbornly refuse to move, or swat them in the face with a manure sodden tail, or wreck fences/alley ways/corrals etc. To be sure, there are innumerable ways that cattle can turn even the most mild mannered individuals into swearing, snarling maniacs. I myself have been guilty of this type of behavior many times, and I have to constantly remind myself not to take it personal, they're just cows being cows. If a handler takes the time to understand them on their level, then he or she can begin to create a system that is less stressful for the cows and ultimately for the handler.
Natural Human Behavior:
Even though many may grasp these basic concepts academically, when it comes to moving cows it seems like the standard instinct for most people is to get behind the cattle and 'drive' them. This often involves lots of yelling, hand waving, and in more extreme cases, flailing, swearing, whipping, and prodding. Certainly you can get cows to move this way, and often it may seem like the only way they will move at all, but in many ways these driving techniques tend to make life harder down the line. The end result of these techniques is a cow that is stressed and agitated. Once a cow becomes stressed she will not respond well to any cues.
One of the first things you can do to alleviate this stress is to lower your voice. There are few things that will raise a cows stress hormones as quickly or as rapidly as the sound of the human voice, especially at a yell. A cow's world is one of bucolic scenes where sounds are limited to the wind running through the grass along the babbling brook; punctuated only by the occasional lowing of an old momma cow, the bawl of a hungry calf, or the beller of a rutting bull. Recall as well, that their hearing is actually quite sensitive. The sound of a human voice grates on their nerves much like the sound of incessantly bawling calves grates on ours. Even in situations where the cows world is limited to a pen or feedlot, the sound of the human voice is not the norm. This is one of the hardest things for people to understand about cattle. After all, what fun is working with cattle if you can't swing your arms in the air and yell "HEE-YAWWW!!!" every so often? Isn't that how John Wayne did it? Actually, that is how John Wayne did it, and lots of real cowboys even do it, but that doesn't make it okay. The human voice stresses cattle out and should be kept to a minimum.
Placing yourself directly behind a cow can also be counterproductive because it makes her want to turn and look at you; because she can't see you in her blind spot. This response is exacerbated when you separate a cow from the main group; not only does she want to turn and watch you, but she doesn't like the fact that you are between her and the rest of the cows. You may be able to keep her from breaking back with a sufficient number of people and/or whacks to the face with a sorting stick. However, even if you are successful in the short term with these methods, you will more than likely have escalated the cows disposition from one of quiet avoidance towards one of aggressive confrontation.
A better solution to driving cows, is to work cows from the front of the herd; slowly applying quiet pressure, then releasing it, with your body position and eyes on the cow that appears to be directing traffic on that end. By alternating between applying pressure and releasing it on this cow, a cattle handler will induce a slow, linear movement of cows past him or her. It is helpful when applying this pressure, to rock from side to side. This technique is called the 'wiggle walk', and it works because it helps the cow know exactly how far away from her you are. Recall that because the cow's eyes are set in the sides of their heads, they don't perceive depth as easily as we do. Anything you can do to help them know where you are will put their bovine minds at ease.
As you continue to apply pressure and release it, and the herd begins to move together in the same direction, motion by the handler(s) in the opposite direction will coax the cows to move more earnestly in their original direction. This method of working cattle from the front of the herd is sometimes referred to as 'working off the eye' of the cow. If this procedure is performed against the side of a corral near an open gate, the ensuing procession of cattle will move willingly through the open gate with a minimum of stress and confrontation. Sadly, I see very few handlers use this technique. Instead the going trend is to get as many whooping and hollering humans as you can behind the cows and push them through the system. Trying to push a herd of cows this way soon becomes like trying to push a rope. You can push a short piece of rope, depending upon its stiffness, but if a rope has any length to it, you won't get it very far just from pushing. Likewise, if you get behind a small group of cows (say 5-6), they will move away from you alright. However, a larger group will bunch up, and the cows at the front of the herd will not feel your pressure until the cows at the back of the herd push on them. This type of pressure often creates panic and disorganized movement. In fact, one of my fellow veterinarians once witnessed a group of heifers trample and kill 4 of their herdmates during a similar panic in an alley way.
If you get the cattle at the front of the herd to lead the way, the motion becomes much more like a rope being pulled to its destination and chances are everyone involved will be a lot less frazzled. All that being said, there are times when it is necessary to apply pressure from behind. For instance, you may be able to initiate motion from the front of the cow, but the distance to their destination may be such that in order to continue their movement you need to follow behind for awhile. If you have the cattle up against a fence, pushing from behind works best if you keep yourself slightly to the side where they can see you. Out in the open this will not work as the cow will break back to the opposite side, so it then becomes necessary to stay directly behind to keep balanced pressure on both sides. In this situation, it is still preferable to keep your voice low and you demeanor calm.
A major obstacle to developing skill with these techniques is that in order for them to work well, you have to invest some time into them. A handler may try these techniques, but get frustrated when they don't work well initially and revert to old habits. It is important to realize that getting the cattle to move well off of pressure on the front of the herd works best when the cattle have had some practice before hand. The easiest way to do this is to move the cattle along one side of the fence using the same technique mentioned earlier, then reverse direction and do the same thing over again. This helps the cattle to know that if they respond to your pressure by moving past you, the pressure will be removed. It takes about 15 minutes, but I have found that doing this will pay dividends in decreased handling time down the road. After teaching the cattle how to respond to pressure, you can create a lineup of handlers between the front of the herd and their intended destination, and they will move calmly and quietly past each one until they have passed through the gate or into the alley way that you desire. This may not be practical when moving cattle across long distances, but it works well in large pens or when moving cattle through the corners of large pastures.
Cattle Handling Facilities:
Once the cattle have learned how to move correctly off of pressure in the open, they will move better through small enclosures as well. However, once the cows have entered the corral or alley way, the onus for low stress handling shifts partially from the technique of the handlers to the design of the facilities. This is only a partial shift, because good handling technique will make up for a mediocre facility. However, if stressful handling techniques are employed, excellent facilities can only decrease the amount of time in which the cattle are stressed, but not eliminate the stress. Facilities in and of themselves cannot lower the stress level of cattle if the handlers employ stressful techniques. I have seen hundreds of different cattle handling facilities, and each one has been unique. Even systems that use components from the same manufacturer tend to have their own individual efficacy as these components usually have to be integrated into a pre-existing system. In my mind, cattle handling systems usually consist of 5 basic components: holding pens, loading pens, alley ways, sorting gates/in-line gates, and chutes/restraining devices. I will discuss each of these components individually, and will attempt to focus on designs over brands as it is not my intention to promote one company over another. However, I may mention some specific, well-known designs for illustrative purposes, and when it comes to squeeze chutes, all bets are off.
Holding pens are larger enclosures that usually accommodate anywhere from 20-30 animals on up to several hundred. Holding pens are usually the first enclosure that cattle see when they are brought in from pasture, and can vary in design from square/rectangular to rounded. The one thing holding pens must be able to do for sure is hold the animals. The fences should be high enough and sturdy enough to keep cattle from jumping out. The pen should also have decent footing, and should be large enough to accommodate a good proportion of the cattle that are going to be processed in a given day. As some places may have multiple holding pens, what qualifies as a 'good proportion' may vary, however if you have to ride out and bring cattle in from the pasture more than once or twice for processing, it will make for a long day. Holding pens should also be small enough that one or two handlers can bring small groups of cattle out of the holding pen into loading pens. Sometimes holding pens will be used to sort cattle, especially when sorting calves off of their mothers. Sometimes there will be a series of holding pens that go from large to small. Whatever the case may be, the bottom line is holding pens need to keep the cattle in, and should be designed so that the flow of movement provides a steady stream of cattle into the processing facility.
A loading pen is essentially a small enclosure where a small group of cattle (say 5-10) are placed after being sorted and brought up from the holding pen(s). Usually cattle go from a loading pen into an alley way, however this may not always be the case. I have seen 3 basic types of loading pens: crowding tubs, bottle-necks, and Bud Boxes. Crowding tubs are usually semi-circular or quarter-circular pens with a swing gate originating from the center of the circle; though I have seen tubs that almost encompass an entire circle. They can be purchased as pre-manufactured units, or built from scratch. One common design element that I have observed in virtually every crowding tub is that the swing gate has a mechanism that prevents the gate from coming back against pressure from cattle inside the tub. The purpose of this feature is to allow the tub space to get smaller and smaller as cattle exit the tub into the alley way, and also to protect the handler(s) from cattle coming back out of the tub. This swing gate essentially 'crowds' the remaining cattle into a position where they have no other alternative but to exit the tub. The advantage of crowding tubs is they make entrance into the alley way inevitable for the cows; no matter how ornery or stubborn they may be, they eventually have to leave the tub, and usually they can be forced out if they are pointed in the right direction. Another advantage to crowding tubs is safety for the handler; almost all crowding tubs are designed to work with the handler on the outside of the tub. Crowding tubs are used almost exclusively for handling wild game type animals such as bison and elk, as attempting to get in a small pen with one of these animals will almost certainly lead to injury for the handler. The downside to crowding tubs is that they don't always work off of the cows natural inclinations for movement. To be sure, there are crowding tubs that have been designed to cater to the cows natural instincts for movement. But I have seen a lot of tubs that only work well if there is someone on the outside poking and prodding the cows through it. I would say the majority of cattle I deal with that are fed into the alley way out of a crowding tub are at least moderately stressed.
Most tubs that I have dealt with have high solid walls and a solid walled swing gate. This is great for keeping the cattle from jumping out of the tub, but it has been my experience that cattle will move through a system better if they can see out; if they can know where the handler is in relation to themselves. At the very least, the crowding gate in a tub should be see through, and if a portion of the outside radius of the tub can be see through it really helps. One of my favorite crowding tub designs is the Morand quarter circle tub. It's outside wall are solid for the about the first 5 feet up, then there is a gap followed by 3 bars across the top; the swing gates both leading into the tub and that crowd the cattle are see through, and the cattle tend to move in and out of them better than other solid walled tubs. In truth, the Morand quarter circle tub is actually a hybrid between a crowding tub and a Bud Box, but before I go into the elements of a Bud Box I need to talk about bottle necks.
A bottle neck loading pen is essentially a small 4 sided pen where the cattle enter on one side and exit out the other. The main feature of a bottle neck is that instead of a square enclosure the wall adjacent to the exit extends obtusely off of the sides of the pen. Imagine a square house with simple peaked roof and a chimney slightly off center to the apex. If the house were seen from the side in profile, then cut in half at the apex, the resulting shape would resemble a bottle neck pen. When using a bottle neck pen, the handler stands on the side of the pen opposite the exit into the alley; the handler can either stand inside the pen with the cows, on the outside of the pen, or on a catwalk. The handler applies pressure to the cows in the pen in such a manner so as to guide them into the bottle neck and then the alley. The bottle neck pen should be wide enough at its entrance to allow the handler to apply pressure to the cattle at a safe distance, but narrow enough that the handler can stand in the cows flight zone. If you have somebody that knows what their doing in a bottle neck pen, you can move cows into the alley very quickly and with a minimum amount of stress. However they can be very frustrating for the uninitiated, or for those cattle handlers that have cut their teeth on forcing cattle through a crowding tub.
A Bud Box is kind of like a bottle neck loading pen, however it has an ingenious design that plays off of a cow's natural instinct to break back towards the herd. The basic Bud Box has a long, wide alley way that comes off of the holding pens, with a narrow alley way exiting perpendicular to the wide alley way. The wider alley way extends past the narrow alley a distance that is a little bit longer than the wider alley's width; this creates a sort of dead end that will fit a small group of cattle. There is a swing gate that hinges off of a post at the entrance to the narrow alley way that swings out across the wider alley way so as to form a diagonal barrier. When cattle are brought up the wide alley from the holding pens, they move past the entrance to the narrow alley, and the swing gate is brought back across the wide alley way behind them. When they stop at the dead end and break back towards where they came from, they naturally want to move along the fence and will usually enter the narrow alley willingly. In this instance, it is preferable for the swing gate to be solid, so that the cattle cannot see back to where they came from, but instead will think the narrow alley is the way to go. I've made it sound more complicated than it really is, it is actually a very simple, very easy to use design, and you don't have to be an expert stock handler to get it to work. The Bud Box is name in honor of a man name Bud Williams, who designed the box and who has had a vast influence on the field of Stockmanship. Many of the ideas I present in this article were taught to me in continuing education courses by a veterinarian named Tom Noffsinger, who worked extensively with Bud Williams and is recognized as an expert in cattle handling.
I mentioned earlier that the Morand quarter circle crowding tub was actually a hybrid between a crowding tub and a Bud Box. It is unique in that it actually has two swing gates, both hinging on either side of the entrance to the narrow alley. The first swing gate blocks the return down the wider alley way, however instead of entering a box, the cows enter a quarter circle tub that has a radius equal to the length of the second swing gate. Once the cattle are in the tub, they can be crowded up into the narrow alley way. Because of the shape of the tub and the limited space, it doesn't work quite as well as a regular Bud Box, but for most cattle it works better than a standard crowding tub. It actually works pretty well for handling wild horses as well, but that's a topic for another day.
Alley ways are actually very simple components, but there seems to be a lot of debate as to which designs work best. Some argue that they should be strait, while others say they should be curved. Some say they should have solid walls, and others say they should be see through. Some prefer wood to metal, and vice versa. Lots of alley ways have catwalks running alongside high walls; others have lower walls with overhead bars and arches to keep the cattle from jumping out. I've seen alley ways of all different designs work well, however if I had to choose, I would say lower walled alleys that allow the cows to see where the handlers are tend to work best, especially if the cows are not stressed when they exit the loading pen. In my experience, it doesn't really matter if they are straight or curved, wood or metal; if the sides of the wall are too high, the cattle will not be able to see what's going on and they will not move well. If you need to put archways and bars over head to keep the cattle from jumping out, go right ahead, but they need to see where the handler is if he or she is going to move them off of the eye.
Sorting Gates/In-line Gates:
Sorting gates are a very important part of the cattle handling system that often gets overlooked. A sorting gate can be something as simple as a swing gate that leads into a side pen, or it can be a component of a split alley that directs cows either right or left. Some of the most effective sorting gates are in-line gates that stop movement of cattle in an alley, thereby allowing the cattle to be brought into the chute and then released individually. Some of the older in-line gates on alleys resemble a guillotine. They include a vertical track system and a pulley that allows the gate to be dropped into place at the appropriate time. These guillotine gates work okay, but I have found that many cattle can nose their ways under them pretty effectively, and they are not always easy to use. Other sorting gates have pieces that come in from the side to separate cows in an alley; these could be referred to as scissor gates or accordion gates. These also can work okay, but there are lots of cows that will get their nose in between the the two halves of the gate and pry it open before the operator can stop them. My personal favorite design when it comes to in-line gates is the roller gate. This gate has a heavy door that rolls into the alley on an overhead track. I can stop just about any cow I want to with a roller gate, even if she gets her head in between the edge of the roller gate and the alley wall. The reason these gates are so effective is that the pressure of the roller gate redirects the cows momentum into the side of the alley with less kinetic energy being transferred to the edges of the gate than a scissor/accordion gate or guillotine gate.
There is one other type of sorting gate that bears mentioning. This is a type of gate that has affectionately been dubbed, 'The Preg Box'. It has been named thus because it is the component used most often by veterinarians to check cows for pregnancy via trans-rectal palpation. A basic preg box has a door that opens into the alley way and blocks it off entirely. Think of a Elmer Fudd running down a hallway then being stopped suddenly as Bugs Bunny opens a hidden door that flattens poor Elmer's Face. That's pretty much how a preg box works. I prefer to work in a system that has some other form of in-line gate behind the preg box, as I am not strong enough to keep a cow from pushing through the gate if she gets her nose between the edge of the door and the opposite alley wall. Also, I don't necessarily like to have to flatten the face of every cow that attempts to come through the door while I am swinging it across the alley; though most cows will stop when they see me open the door. Notwithstanding, I feel fortunate that most systems have a preg box at all, so I try not to complain if a system doesn't have an in-line gate right behind it.
Chutes and other Restraining Devices:
Now for the Piece de Resistance of a cattle handling system, the squeeze chute. I refer to this section as Chutes and other Restraining Devices because not all systems I have worked in actually have what we might refer to as a 'squeeze chute'. However most of them do, and if a rancher is going to boast about anything in his handling system, it will likely be about his squeeze chute. I could write a book on all of the different squeeze chute designs. The first squeezes were designed, as one seasoned vet I know eloquently put it, 'primarily to kill people'. As squeeze chutes evolved, they became safer for the people using them, but not always for the cattle. I know I said I didn't want to pick on or promote specific companies, but when it comes to killing cattle, I think the old Powder River scissor catch chutes have earned a place in the annals of history. Not that Powder Rivers are alone in this category, any squeeze that doesn't have a straight edged head restraint can apply sufficient pressure on a cows carotid artery to stop all blood flow to the brain and result in death in 30 seconds or less. A good squeeze chute should be able to catch a cows head, squeeze her up so that she can't move, allow access to the neck, lung field, flank, sheath, scrotum, back end, and feet, and prevent other cows from coming into the chute at the same time. It should do these things with minimum stress and/or injury to the cow and the handler. A good squeeze should also allow for multiple exit points. For instance if a cow won't or can't go out of the front of the chute, at least one side of the chute should be able to open wide enough for her to make an exit.
There are lots of chutes out there that can get the job done, especially when you start throwing hydraulic rams into the mix. In my mind, the Cadillac of squeeze chutes is the Silencer hydraulic chute. They are quiet, powerful, and effective; they also cost a small fortune. The average ranch cannot justify the expense of owning a Silencer, though I never complain when they decide to splurge on one. Stampede Steel makes a pretty good hydraulic that is a little more cost effective than the Silencer, but is still quite an expense for an outfit that might only run cattle through 3 or 4 times a year. If I had to pick a favorite manual squeeze chute, I would have to say the clear winner is the Morand. Morands are built to last, and they work really well. Cattle seem to go into a Morand better than many other chutes, and the rugged, simple design of a Morand seems to ensure that its components function like new over a period of several years. I have several clients who have Morands that are at least 20 years old and still work very well. You'll pay a little bit more for a Morand than some manual squeezes, but they tend to hold their value better than other chutes. That being said, there are a host of other squeeze chutes that I have worked in that work well. There is a company out of Manitoba that makes a big yellow chute called a 'Tuff' chute. We have one of these at the clinic and it gets the job done, and is more affordable than a Morand. Hi-Hogs, HiQuals, and Pearsons are very common in our area, and other than an occasional cable breakdown, they work fairly well. Perhaps one of my favorite manual squeeze chutes is the red Thorson chute out of Corvallis, Montana. The company closed its doors in the past decade, so you can't go out and buy a new Thorson. But, if you get a chance to purchase a used Thorson don't pass it up, or if you do, let me know so I can buy it.
I mentioned earlier that not all systems I work in have a squeeze chute. For a lot of the jobs I do, I really only need access to the cow's back end, and in this situation a simple box with a door on the front of it and slot for a back post will work just fine. I have several clients with setups like this, and for artificially inseminating cows, preg checking, and even semen testing bulls they work great. One advantage these simple setups have is that since the cow's head is not caught, she is less prone to kneel down on her front legs, which usually makes my job a lot easier and is safer for everyone involved. That being said, there is one feature that you can install in just about any chute that will prevent this from happening; that is a brisket bar. A brisket bar is a device that extends up from the floor of the chute to a height level with an average cow's brisket. It is usually a round bar that comes up at an angle from the middle of the chute and then ends abruptly at the front of the chute. They can easily be welded into the floor of any metal chute, or better yet, slots and pin barrels can be welded into the floor that allow the brisket bar to be removed as needed. Our Tuff chute at the clinic has a detachable brisket bar that can be removed even with a cows full weight is on it. I find them to be a handy component to a good squeeze, and would not hesitate to install one in a chute that didn't have it as a standard feature.
Along with the main components of a cattle handling system, there are several accessories that make the job go a lot easier. One of the most basic and vital is a good sorting stick. A sorting stick can be made of anything. Some of the more common sorting sticks are wooden canes, fiberglass rods, or plastic pipes. I prefer to use a fiberglass rod with a good rubber grip and a white plastic bag taped to the end. The white stands out to cattle much like blaze orange stands out to humans, and having it on the end of a stick allows me to put pressure on a cow over a much wider area than what I can do on just my feet. I also feel that I can move the cows a lot better with the white plastic bag than say a rattling paddle or a whip. The only problem with having a sorting stick, is that it creates the temptation to beat on the cows when they start to get ornery. That's not to say you shouldn't be able to defend yourself against a mean cow, and a good whack to the face with a sorting stick has deterred many a would be aggressor. However I have seen far too many cattle get stressed out because the only way their handlers know how to move them is by yelling and smacking them with sorting sticks. So use sorting sticks, but use them judiciously.
There is one cattle handling accessory that many cattle handlers have developed an almost addictive dependence for: the electric cattle prod or 'hotshot'. I have gone through a range of emotions and opinions regarding the hotshot. When I was a 4th year veterinary student I purposefully zapped myself in the leg with a hotshot because I wanted to know what if felt like before I used it on a cow. It really hurt! If felt like a pitbull had bitten me on the quadriceps! Since then I have gone back and forth on the ethics and practicality of the hotshot. There are times when a cow goes down in an alley or chute and you have to either get her up with the hotshot or she dies. There are other times when a cow is just going to plant her feet and make up her mind that she ain't movin'. Your alternatives at that point are to wait her out (which may take several minutes), beat on her with a sorting stick, twist her tail to its breaking point, or zap her with the hotshot; and none of them will get the job done as quickly as the hotshot will. I have come to the conclusion that it is more humane to zap her with the hotshot than to beat on her with a sorting stick or twist her tail. It's true that it might be more humane to wait her out, but anyone who has worked cattle through a chute will tell you that you really don't have that much time to waste. If you spend more than a 1, or maybe 2 minutes on each cow, you won't be able to get through them all in a day. When you consider the amount of coordination and resource allocation that it takes for an average sized ranch to be able to work cows through the chutes, spending more than a day or two doing it becomes very impractical. I will say this however, if you find yourself reaching for the hotshot more than once or twice in a day, that may be a sign that there is something about your cattle handling technique or system that is slowing you down. A little time invested early on in teaching cattle how to move off of pressure will prevent most of these dilemmas, and many times some minor modifications can turn a poor system into a functional one. Because we aren't perfect people, and we don't live in a perfect world, I think there needs to be a place for the hotshot. However, if there is one thing I have learned in my career as a veterinarian, you never stop learning, and there is almost always a better way to do something than what you have been doing in the past. The principles, techniques, and designs I have outlined in this article are by no means exhaustive. They are based largely on my own observations and opinions, though much of what I have written is based on things I have learned from others. However, if you'll consider the fact that I help process more than 20,000 cattle every year in over 100 different cattle handling systems, then perhaps it will help you think about some ways that you might be able to do things a little better. If that's all it accomplishes then it will have been worth the effort.