Handling Livestock Safely

Every year animal-related accidents cause numerous deaths and serious injuries. In fact, the National Safety Council conducted a study in the 90’s that ranked beef cattle farms second and dairy operations third among all farming enterprises in injuries per hours of work. Seventeen percent of all farm injuries involved animals. This figure equaled the percentage of injuries caused by farm machinery.

Removing hazards brings you closer to a safe workplace. Whether you are operating equipment or working with animals, taking a few precautions and observing safety rules can save you precious time, and prevent injury. It can even save your life.

General Considerations

Working with livestock, you quickly learn that each animal has a unique personality. Animals sense their surroundings differently than humans. For example, they see in black and white, not in color, and they have difficulty judging distances. In addition, differences exist between the vision of cattle, swine, and horses. For example, cattle have close to 360-degree panoramic vision (Figure 1). A quick movement behind cattle may “spook” them.

Animals have extremely sensitive hearing and can detect sounds that human ears cannot hear. Loud noises frighten animals, and research proves that high-frequency sounds actually hurt their ears. These factors explain why animals are often skittish and balky, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings.

Watching animals for signs of aggressiveness or fear alerts you to possible danger. Warning signs may include raised or pinned ears, raised tail, or raised hair on the back, bared teeth, pawing the ground, or snorting.

Although handling methods may vary greatly for different types of livestock, agricultural experts cite the following generally accepted rules for working with any animal:

  • Be calm and deliberate; most animals will respond to routine.
  • Avoid quick movements or loud noises.
  • Be patient; never prod an animal when it has nowhere to go.
  • Respect livestock – don’t fear it!
  • Move slowly and deliberately around livestock; gently touch animals rather than shoving or bumping them.
  • Always have an escape route when working with an animal in close quarters.


Equipment and building structures are often a causative factor in many livestock handling injuries. In addition, poor facilities and equipment can also cause injuries to animals. This can mean considerable economic loss at market time.

Serious injuries and substantial lost time can result from trip hazards such as high doorsills, cluttered alleyways, and uneven walking surfaces. Studies have found that falls account for 18 percent of all animal-related accidents.

Concrete floors are best for livestock, but they can pose fall hazards if they become wet. Roughening the finish on concrete floors and creating groove in high traffic areas, such as alleyways, should help to prevent slips under wet conditions. Floors should allow water to drain easily. Many facilities use slatted floors to keep animals dry in a confinement system.

Fencing and gates should be strong enough to contain crowded livestock. A variety of materials is available, but the key is strength and durability. A protruding piece of lumber, a nail, or a bolt can cause painful and infectious injuries. If backed or pushed into, one of these objects can cause a serious back injury.

Alleys and chutes should be wide enough to allow animals to pass, but not wide enough to allow them to turn around. Experts recommend a width of 30 inches for a cow-calf operation. For cattle in the range of 800 to 1,200 pounds, the recommended width is 26-inches. Using solid wall chutes, instead of fencing, will lower the number of animals that balk in the chute.

Lighting should be even and diffused. Bright spots and shadows tend to make animals more skittish, especially near crowding or loading areas. Animals move more readily from dark areas into light. However, it is important to avoid layouts that make them look directly into the sun.

Handling equipment can speed up livestock confinement work operations, reduce time and labor requirements, cut costs, and decrease the risk of injury.                     

Animal Health and Hygiene

Hygiene is vital to good livestock management, particularly in confinement systems where diseases can spread quickly. Maintaining a clean, dry environment is obviously important, but other factors also are crucial.

Ventilation should minimize dust. Various molds that can cause respiratory as well as digestive problems may be present in feed. Therefore, it is important to check all feeds carefully before giving them to livestock. Deal only with reliable feed dealers and have suspect feed tested.

Animal Diseases that Affect People

All animals, domesticated or wild, can be a source of human illness and parasitic infestation. The diseases that result – zoonoses — spread from animals to humans under natural conditions. These diseases can include any type of organism, for example, viruses, bacteria, parasites, and prions. Zoonotic diseases may be spread directly from animals to people, or indirectly through the environment or vectors such as ticks, mosquitoes, flies, etc.

Rabies is a deadly virus that affects the central nervous system. It can be transmitted by saliva from an infected animal through a bite, open wound, or sore. Although widespread pet inoculation has greatly reduced the threat of rabies, rural people are at greater risk due to their proximity to wild animals. A veterinarian should be called to examine animals observed acting abnormally. Seek immediate medical attention if an animal that you suspect is rabid has bitten you.

Lyme Disease (LD) — only a remote possibility in some areas — is another potential threat. Although the tick species known to transmit LD are not present in every state, you should be cautious. If LD occurs, its symptoms may develop within two to 30 days of the tick bite. A small red bump appears near the bite and enlarges into a spreading red ring. This is followed by a general sickness, including fever, chills, headaches, and backache. Some may experience palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

LD responds well to antibiotics in its early stages, but if left untreated, it may advance into a chronic stage involving rheumatoid arthritis or cardiac problems.

Brucellosis (Bangs Disease) affects cattle, goats, and swine. It can be transmitted to people in unprocessed milk, infected carcasses, or by an aborted fetus or afterbirth from an affected animal. Good sanitation practices reduce the chances that herds will be infected. Animals should be vaccinated against this disease and tested periodically for it.

Trichinosis, caused by tiny parasites, can be painful and sometimes fatal to humans. It is transmitted by consumption of uncooked or partially cooked pork. Trichinosis has nearly been eradicated in North America. Thorough cooking is the best prevention.

Salmonella organisms are found in poultry and in wild and domestic animals. They can be transmitted to people through contaminated food or water. The disease can cause severe gastrointestinal distress and fever. Prevention includes proper storage and cooking of animal-derived foods. Good sanitation procedures when handling food reduce the risk of salmonella poisoning.

Other zoonoses also exist. However, preventive measures such as keeping animal facilities clean, testing, and immunizing, and using sanitary practices in handling animals and their products minimize the danger.

Manure Pit Gases

Toxic gases, especially in confined spaces such as manure pits, silos and grain bins, can pose hazards to humans and animals (Figure 2). Four gases of major concern can be found in manure pits. They are hydrogen sulfide (H2S), ammonia (NH3), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).

The primary health hazards of these gases are:

  • Toxic or poisonous reactions in people or animals. Hydrogen sulfide is the most toxic of these gases.
  • Oxygen depletion that can result in asphyxiation. Hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and carbon dioxide gases are all heavier than air. During agitation of the pit and under conditions of poor ventilation, these gases will replace the oxygen in the air.
  • Explosions that can occur when oxygen mixes with the gases. This is primarily a problem with methane.

Characteristics of Gases

Hydrogen sulfide

  • Most dangerous gas associated with waste decomposition.
  • Has a distinct rotten egg smell and is heavier than air.
  • After breathing this gas a short time, your sense of smell becomes fatigued and you may no longer be able to detect any odor. This gives you a false sense of security. At low concentrations, the gas irritates the eyes and respiratory tract; at moderate levels, causes headaches, nausea, and dizziness; at high concentrations, death occurs.


  • Has a distinct, sharp, penetrating odor detectable at very low concentrations.
  • Is heavier than air.
  • At moderate levels of concentration, can irritate eyes and respiratory tract; at high concentrations, can cause ulceration to the eyes and severe irritation to the respiratory tract.

Carbon dioxide:

  • Is odorless, heavier than air, and difficult to detect.
  • Primarily replaces oxygen in air and acts as an asphyxiant. At moderate concentrations, shortness of breath and dizziness can occur.
  • Is a major contributing factor to animal deaths by asphyxiation in confinement buildings, which often occurs during a failure of the ventilation system.


  • Is odorless and lighter than air.
  • Tends to accumulate near the tops of manure pits.
  • Considered an asphyxiant at extremely high concentrations.
  • Main hazard is its flammable, explosive nature.

Meadowbrook Insurance Group, Inc. and First Pioneer Insurance Agency, Inc. do not assume liability for the accuracy or completeness of the information contained within these safety resources. The resources are intended to be advisory and informational only. Use of the resources is intended for customers of First Pioneer Insurance and is subject to the terms of use with Meadowbrook Insurance.