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Emotional intelligence amplifies training on proper livestock handling

Jim Lewis for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 December 2019

The production of high-quality proteins, either meat or milk, has never been under greater scrutiny. Social media has virtually unbounded people’s ability to share their voice with the world.

The days of the marketplace accepting milk and meat from producers which do not have acceptable animal handling and welfare practices in place are nonexistent. Proper livestock handling is not only the right thing to do for the animals, consumers mandate it.



Proper livestock handling combined with a person’s emotional intelligence quotient are critical components of empathetic animal care. The first component, handling, consists of a set of skills and techniques which can be taught and honed over time. The second component, emotional intelligence, is less tangible and relates more to a person’s ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior and manage and/or adjust behaviors to adapt to environments or situations.

As human beings we have a natural predator instinct, and it is in our nature to react to stimulus around us. Conversely, when we want something to happen, we apply the appropriate amount of effort to cause the desired action to occur. In both of these situations, we draw on our experience to determine the appropriate action to take. If our experience includes training targeted specifically at the situation in front of us, there is a better likelihood of achieving the desired outcome through a controlled approach. If, however, people are left to their own devices and lack the appropriate training for the situation in front of them, they tend to fall back on the more basic predatory instinct, which typically adopts a more adversarial position. This means there is one winner and one loser.

Unfortunately, police conflicts are frequently in the headlines on an almost daily basis. Some people are incensed because they believe anyone wearing a uniform and carrying a gun should have received such extensive training they are able to overcome the natural instinct to defend themselves against an external threat and can draw on their training to diffuse a situation or handle it in a way which does not require the use of deadly force. While livestock are not typically killed, they can certainly be harmed by improperly-trained employees who are not equipped to manage or adjust their behaviors to adapt to the environment or a rapidly-developing situation and properly handle or control the animals in their care.

The ability to properly and effectively interact with animals in a safe and efficient manner can be, but is not always, an inherent skill. This ability demands skills and techniques which require training, practice and reinforcement. These skills and techniques can be used in virtually any facility to improve the movement of animals, but they are most effective when facilities have been designed to both promote the flow of production animals and allow for positive interactions between handlers and animals.

Gauging an individual’s emotional intelligence quotient during the interview and hiring process is important. Not all people are suited to work with animals. This does not mean they would be a bad employee; simply they should not be put in a position to do something for which they are not suited. Similarly, not all individuals are suited to be computer programmers, truck drivers or school teachers. Skills can be taught and, if the desire is there, they can be honed and perfected. If, however, a person is ill-suited for a job because of their personality, no amount of training is going to change that.


Many dairies face personnel challenges. Unfortunately, there is an extreme shortage of people willing to work the hours required and are also able to perform the physical duties of many of the roles on a dairy. All of this contributes additional complexity to hiring and placing the right individuals in the right positions. Then, it is incumbent upon the organization to provide the proper training and reinforcement to ensure protocols and processes are followed.

Training individuals to a level where the right way is their first instinct is critical, and it is actually common practice in many professions. For example, when firefighters approach an emergency situation, they rely upon their extensive training to know how to properly and safely handle the situation. Similarly, emergency room physicians rely on their training to assess a trauma victim and administer the appropriate care. This is also the desired outcome when providing ongoing training on proper livestock handling on your dairy. Then proper handling becomes second nature to your team of animal-care providers. When effective training causes a person to act in the desired way and they are able to effectively manage the situation, it prevents frustration which can occur causing someone to revert to a less-than-desirable approach.

This same thinking and approach are equally relevant in the dairy industry. Investing in employees by providing the appropriate training to individuals for all assigned tasks associated with their role in the dairy is critical. Providing role-specific proper handling training ensures anyone who interacts with animals has the appropriate skill set, and thus prevents them from reverting to a predatory instinct which could cause them to act in a less desirable manner. This training should be integrated into the onboarding process of individuals hired to interact with livestock. It should include some classroom time to present the basics, hands-on training with someone who has an expertise in animal handling and periodic review to assess and reinforce the use of these skills.

Periodic reviews can also help to address procedural drift which is common with task-oriented jobs. Procedural drift often occurs as a result of the redundancy from doing the same task multiple times day after day. Recurrent training sessions of livestock handlers by a staff member or an outside resource can help to minimize this drift.

Specific training in livestock handling should be a priority for every dairy. The dairy industry, like most others, can no longer rely on assumptions of skill level in employees. We have to have an ongoing training program in place for new hires and current employees. This training plan has to be supported by owners, managers and employees. If you neglect to implement a plan to properly train and document the training of your employees, your processor will potentially seek other sources of dairy proteins to satisfy consumer demands.

I recently saw a sign at a dairy with the statement “Be Kind.” These signs were located at strategic high-traffic points above doors and serve as a constant reminder to employees of their training and how to treat both animals and co-workers.  end mark


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