Cattle Handling

How to improve safety in your cattle yard

Written by Aimee Johnston

Improve safety in your cattle yard

Many injuries happen in cattle yards so it’s important to consider what you can do to keep yourself and your staff safe. In this article we discuss how to keep cattle calm while in the yards, understanding cattle behaviour, cattle yard design and maintenance that can affect your safety in the yards.

Working with cattle in yards is generally more hazardous than in a paddock - the cattle are in a restricted space and more agitated than normal. The most common injuries in cattle yards according to Worksafe NZ are people being crushed against rails and fences, being kicked, being trampled after falling/tripping over or stepped on toes. 

Factors that increase risk of injury while handling cattle:

  • agitated cattle
  • inexperienced handlers – cattle recognise fear and may react unpredictably
  • new or infrequently handled cattle – cattle can be more difficult to handle if it’s their first time in the yards, they’re in new yards or with different handlers
  • poorly designed or maintained yards.

Craig Barns Yard Angus Cattle

How to keep cattle calm

Alarmed and stressed cattle can be dangerous. If your cattle are stressed or new to the yards, then you should give them 30 minutes to settle down before you start handling them. They’ll be a lot easier and safer to work with.

Some things upset cattle and other things calm them down. Understanding these will make your job easier.

What upsets cattle:

  • Being hungry and/or thirsty
  • Loud noise, barking dogs, shouting, motorbikes revving
  • Being hit or beaten
  • Electric prodders
  • Being chased
  • People in their ‘personal space’ especially around their head
  • Sickness or injury

What calms cattle down:

  • Working with them in a quiet confident way
  • Familiar surroundings and people
  • Gentle, low sounds
  • Quiet talking or rhythmical sounds

Understanding Cattle Behaviour

If you can recognise when an animal is agitated, it may help you avoid danger. Agitated cattle often bellow loudly and paw the ground with their hooves. The head and tail positions of cattle also give clues as to the animal’s state of mind. Be on the lookout for these danger signs.

Common head and tail positions:

working with cattle head positions

working with cattle tail positions

  1. Neutral position
  2. Slightly antagonistic position
  3. Highly antagonistic position
  4. Confident approach
  5. Submissive approach
  6. Alert before flight position
  7. Grazing or walking
  8. Cold, ill or frightened
  9. Threatening, curiosity or sexual excitement
  10. Galloping
  11. Kicking or playing


Cattle ‘flight zone’

The ‘flight zone’ is the term for how close you can get to cattle before they start moving. The flight zone can be 5 metres or less for regularly-handled cattle. A herd of beef cattle that have been handled infrequently will probably start moving if you get within 100 metres. Entering the cattle’s flight zone will get them moving. The closer you get, the faster they will move away. Manage their movement speed by how close you get to them. Likewise, to stop them moving, step out of their flight zone.

cattle flight zone and balance line diagrams


Balance lines

Cattle have two balance lines. Understanding these balance lines will help you to get cattle moving where you want them. One balance line runs across the shoulders and the other runs along the backbone. When you’re working up close, whichever way you move through those lines, the animal will move the other way:

If you’re alongside the animal and move forward, it will move backward.
If you go back, it will go forward.
If you’re in front and move to the left, it will move to your right.

cattle flight zone and balance line diagrams2

Yard Maintenance

Rocks, rubbish and debris can cause tripping injuries and may upset the movement of stock throughout the yards.
Too much mud is a slipping hazard for cattle and humans. If possible, remove this before using the yards.

Things to check in cattle yards before bringing in stock:

  • the fences and catwalks are in good condition
  • there are no bolts or nails sticking out
  • there are no broken rails
  • the layout and know how things work 
  • the head bail works smoothly and can adjust for the size of cattle
  • that gate latches are secure and open or close as required
  • the yard is well lit, or there is lighting for night work 
  • that rear race gates are used.

Safety in cattle yards improves with well-designed and kept yards. Before yarding cattle, ensure the fences and catwalks are in good condition and check there are no protruding bolts or broken rails.  If your gates are broken or hard to use you should consider replacing them or installing quality slam latches.

Yard design features that improve safety

There are many design features that can help improve safety in your cattle yards. Many of these features can be easily added to existing yards. Take a look at the features listed below and have a think about how you might be able to upgrade your yard to make it safer.

Here’s our top 10 Cattle Yard Safety features:

1. Cattle Free Zone

An area in the yards that is for staff only, no cattle. Usually, an area around the catwalk where you can safety move around and store equipment.

Craig Barns in his cattle yard

2. Circular Forcing Gate

A gate that rotates around a circular forcing pen to help you load the race. Most importantly, a good forcing gate provides a physical barrier between staff and the animals to ensure safety. Some forcing gates lock in at intervals around the pen to prevent animals from pushing back onto staff behind the gate.

cattle yard forcing gate

3. Man Access Gates 

Man gates or access gaps between pens are a great way to make it safer and easier to get around your yards. Man gate latches need to be easy to use to allow for a quick escape if required.

cattle yard man access gate

4. Slam Latches

Slam latches are quicker and easier to use than fiddly gate chains which makes them safer to use because your back won’t be turned to the cattle for as long. Make sure the latches you choose good quality latches that are easy to use. New steel gates with slam latches can be retrofitted into old timber yards.

slam latches for timber yards thumbnail crop3

5. Sliding Race Gates

Sliding race gates are an excellent feature to help safely hold cattle in the lead up race. They can safely and easily be opened and shut from on the catwalk so no need to be in the forcing pen with the animals to shut the gate. They should be fitted with self-closing latches to stop stock backing out of the race. Sliding race gates can be retro fitted into old timber yards in many cases.

sliding race gates top handle 900px

6. Catwalk

A catwalk alongside the race should be wide enough that staff can walk along it safely without falling off. We recommend it should be 1m wide so that people can pass each other easily when multiple people are working up the race. Your catwalk should not be slippery and you can add a hand rail to improve yard safety, especially if they don’t have a cattle free zone.

working up race wide timber catwalk

7. Head Bail

It’s important that you have a head bail that is strong enough to make animal restraint safe for animal and operator. The healthcare of any herd of cattle is almost impossible without a head bail. It is often considered the yard’s most important feature. Make sure you have a head bail that closes quickly, quietly and gently. New Headbails can be retro fitted into old timber yards in many cases.

te pari classic headbail action shot 1000px

8. Cattle Crush

A cattle crush can greatly improve the safety of your yards. A Good crush will securely and safely hold an animal while giving you safe access to carry out necessary animal husbandry procedures such as drenching, vaccinating, castration, Pregnancy testing etc. Make sure you choose a quality crush with reliable gates that will hold animals securely.

cattle crush side access in use

9. Anti-Backing Bar

An anti-backing bar can prevent cattle moving within your crush or race. The bar position should be adjustable to suit different sized cattle and it is important that the bar doesn’t slip out during use. Anti-backing bars can be retro fitted into old timber races in many cases.

cattle crush backing bar

10. Loading Ramp

A good quality, anti-slip loading ramp will help make loading cattle on and off trucks safer and easier. A loading ramp with a catwalk on it gives staff a safe place to encourage cattle into the truck without having to get in the ramp with them. Sheeted sides on your ramp will help prevent cattle from trying to turn and a stepped ramp is easier for cattle to navigate.

loading ramp catwalk



Well-designed yards make it safer, not to mention easier, to handle cattle. Talk to one of our Cattle Yard Consultants today for free advice on how to improve safety in your yard.

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