10 Easy Ways to Stay Safe Working With Livestock

Farming is not for the faint of heart. Long days, harsh working conditions and no paid vacations are the norm. Producers are at the mercy of adverse weather events, equipment break downs, physically strenuous labor, and rising fuel and feed costs … and on top of it all, farmers work in one of the most dangerous industries in the world.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), farmers and their family members are at extremely high risk of fatal and non-fatal injuries. In 2020, there were 11,880 injuries in agricultural production that required days away from work. This number is likely much, much higher … farmers are tough and most ag workers never report work related injuries. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2021, 21 fatal occupational injuries occurred as a result of an animal incident. Of those 21 fatalities, 18 workers died after being struck by the animal they were working with.

Animal agriculture is particularly dangerous. Yes, tractors roll over, implements can trap and crush operators, vehicular accidents on farm happen. But working with large, powerful, flight-prone animals adds an extra element of danger. What are we to do? It is impossible to raise livestock without handling them periodically. Even the most hands-off, feral operations round up or otherwise catch animals eventually. Most modern producers check their animals frequently, are closely involved with breeding and birth events, and provide vaccines, deworming and first aid as part of routine husbandry. Even the simple act of feeding and watering livestock is hazardous, depending on your set up.

We can’t not handle our livestock, so how do we work them safely?

I’ve visited thousands of farms over the course of my career…and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s nothing is 100% safe. I’ve bled angry wild hogs in muck and mire without a scratch, and have had my nose broke and both eyes blackened at the most picture-perfect, manicured horse barn. Safety starts with the humans you work with. Let’s learn from my mistakes, my broken bones, my trashed equipment, and my miscommunications!

Safety starts with the humans

1. Buddy System

Farmers are tough and stubborn (myself included) and don’t like asking for help. But this piece of advice is important: don’t work alone. At very least, tell someone when and where you will be working animals. Some caveats:

  • Wrangle enough people for the job – but not too many. Too many cooks in the kitchen is asking for trouble. Spectators are just more folks who will get in your way and get stepped on or bulldozed by large animals. Have enough people handy to help, but not so many that there are loiterers.
  • Recruit good help, provide good training now is not the time to spare feelings. Ask your helper(s) point blank if they are comfortable working with the species at hand. Do they know how to work the catch equipment? Can they halter, tie or snare? I’m not here to discourage beginners from learning! I want to encourage you to have training conversations and practice sessions before the catching any animals.

2. Bad Help is Worse Than No Help

Good help is hard to find. When you’ve found or trained that perfect person, they’re worth their weight in gold! On the flip side, crap help puts your safety at risk. There’s no room for egos at the chute.

  • If your help cannot work the head gate, do not place them at the head gate.
  • If your help cannot apply and hold the twitch or snare, do not ask them to do so.
  • If your help refuses to stay out of the kick / bite / strike zones, they are fired.

Bottom line: be sure your helpers are comfortable with the tasks assigned to them and are good communicators, before round up. Get on the same page with what needs doing before catching animals, versus realizing too late that you’ve read different books!

Use The Right Tools

3. Invest in Livestock handling Equipment

When it comes to working livestock, the safest place a human can be is the opposite side of fence.

Bulls charge. Boars and sows bite. Horses rear and strike. Rams and bucks headbutt.

It’s not always possible to work from the opposite side of the fence. When that’s the case, a few safety and restraint items go a long way. Use of livestock handling equipment improves work efficiency and decreases stress on the animals (and humans!) involved.

Most importantly, having and knowing how to use the right equipment can save lives.

Your work pens, squeeze chutes, snares, twitches and ropes don’t need to be Instagram worthy…they simply need to be available and in good working order. Much more important than having brand new is to create a workspace that provides barriers between you and your animal(s).

Stick to the basics outlined below:

Halters & Head Control

Horses, cows and pigs have extremely large, heavy, dangerous heads…and they can use them as weapons.

What’s the first thing a cow does when the head gate closes? Thrash it’s head. What does an anxious horse do when it doesn’t want to be haltered or twitched? Pulls back, rears, and swings it’s head around.

The takeaway: always use a halter.

Do your best to maintain control of the head. Use a halter even when the animal is in stocks or the chute. I keep an extra halter for every species in my vet truck. And though I might get laughed at, I won’t work on an animal if it’s not wearing a halter.

Multiple livestock halters of various sizes and colors hanging in barn

But Doc, my critter is really good!

I love that for you, and I’m sure they are great, but I don’t care! In fact, I recommend using a halter especially if your animal is very well-mannered … don’t be tempted to trust your critter! It’s not fair to expect them to be non-reactive during an uncomfortable or stressful procedure.

Check Halters, Leads, Snares Before You Need Them

Check that your halters and ropes are in good condition before you use them – no tears, broken buckles, worn-through rope. You don’t want your halter unexpectedly turning into a breakaway!

If you are able to safely use secondary restraint, such as a nose chain, twitch or snare, apply one just before performing the needed procedure(s) and remove it as soon as possible afterwards. Be sure your twitch and snare are in working order before applying them!

Lastly, a PSA for my horse friends: cross-ties are NOT a substitute for holding your animal while it gets shod, vaccinated, dewormed, etc. A snapped cross tie spells disaster, for you and your horse.

Human vs. Animal Barrier

The safest place for you, your helpers and your vet is the opposite side of the fence. You are less likely to be stomped on, crushed or knocked over if there’s a fence or panel between you and your animal(s).

If you have to get into a pen, minimize the number of people working on the animal-side. Ideally, the only time you’d be on the same side of the fence is to drive stock into a sort lane or crowd pen. When inside, know your exits and keep an eye on all the animals, not just the one you’re looking to sort.

Consider Exit Points

Think about how animals will exit the work area. Usually when a head gate opens, cows are quick to scramble out. They don’t always exit gracefully or in a straight line! Therefor, consider adding an extra panel or barrier to protect the individual operating the head gate lever.

Single-Animal Area

As best you are able, design your workspace so that you can work one animal at a time. This is easily solved by working with a chute system…but if a chute isn’t available, think about how you could sort single animals away from the herd.

It is always safer to focus your attention on one large animal at a time. I know from experience how difficult it is to catch one rogue lamb or calf when its herdmates are circling. For example, just today I was sucker-punched by ram lamb. Had I taken the extra 60 seconds to move the sick animal to a solo pen, I could have avoided a headbutt from his brother.

Accidents happen most often when your back is turned. And it won’t always be the animal of interest who is causing mischief!


If you can afford to purchase or build a chute, I highly recommend that you do so. Unless you are an excellent cowboy (I am not), a chute will facilitate safe, low-stress handling of your animals. A chute with a head gate will allow you to safely restrain your animals for tagging, drenching, vaccination, giving medication, pregnancy checks and sometimes foot trims.

The main benefit of chute systems is that they place a sturdy barrier between you and your animal. They are a humane, quick means of restraint. Using a chute eliminates the need (and danger) of tying animals or relying solely on veterinary sedatives.

Cow restrained safely in livestock chute head gate

What kind of livestock chute should I get?

There are a variety of chute styles and manufacturers in the US. Do your research and work with the manufacturer to decide what size and style best fits your operation. Choose a system that is applicable to the species, breed and number of head. Also consider type of operation. A cow-calf operation will have different needs than a finishing operation.

Have a producer friend? Ask fellow farmers what systems they use, like and have had success with.

Remember, shiny and new is not necessary! So long as the equipment has been maintained over the years, a secondhand chute can be a great addition to your farm. If you do decide to add a chute, be sure to learn how to operate and care for it. Keep spare parts on hand. Make repairs promptly.

Also, if you are particularly handy, a chute can be homemade. Be sure to choose building materials that are strong enough to withstand the type of animals you will be working.

Where do I put my chute?

Choosing a safe place to station your livestock chute is crucial. Ideally, your chute will attach to multiple pens. It should be easy to drive animals in for sorting. The best order of operations is to move animals from a holding pen – to a crowding pen – to the working chute – to whatever your end destination for that animal is.

Place the sort pens and chute somewhere with good drainage and good footing. Any time you put a large number of animals in one spot (even if just for a short period of time), you invite mud to form. A slight slope to the landscape sometimes works in your favor, as it promotes faster drainage.

If you working facilities are mostly indoor, provide non-slip footing wherever possible. Cattle and swine are particularly messy. Don’t set yourself up to slip in manure or urine!

4. Maintain Your Equipment

Broken equipment is more dangerous than no equipment at all. Regularly check, maintain and repair the tools for the job.

Daily Checks

It’s a good idea to eyeball your chutes and panels each time you intend to run animals through. Pull the levers to ensure smooth movement of the doors and side panels. If your chute is manual, grease the moving parts. The gates should slide without needing extra force. Pull the levers and move the panels and doors a couple times before running your stock through.

Check: Are any sections rusting through? Are your springs and pins intact?

Check: Is the head gate opening properly sized? Too wide, the animals will charge through. Too small, you risk choking the animal or pinching nerves.

And lastly, as mentioned above, don’t use worn-out halters, ropes or auxiliary restraint tools. If you find a tear, break or blemish, fix it or replace it before use.

Scheduled Checks +/- Repairs

It sure would be handy if our chutes, panels, snares and twitches came with expiration date stickers like oil change places give out! Since they don’t, put equipment maintenance on your calendar!

Have a tractor? A truck? Every time you do an oil change or tire swap on those big ticket items, take the time to also check your livestock handling equipment.

If you are regularly working with equipment that is not yours (i.e. at a livestock market, a friend’s property, etc.) don’t forget the pre-use “eyeballing” step! If anything looks sketchy or broken, it’s safer to step away. Reschedule the work. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted MacGyvering repairs…and then ended up rescheduling anyways!

Dress For The Job

Why on Earth are we talking about clothing choices? While Instagram may have you believing otherwise, farming is not a fashion show. Behind the scenes, livestock producers (myself included) are usually covered in mud, poop, pee, hair, hay, grain bits, bedding, you name it. Not particularly glamorous.

Did you know though, that some of that mud, poop, pee, etc. can be harmful to you? And potentially to other animals? Or that your farm garb can get you trapped in a dangerous situation?

The 90s called, they want their JNCO Jeans back.

Well fitting farm clothes are a must. Leave the baggy and saggy home! Do your clothes need tailoring? No! Do they need to be stain-free and presentable? Of course not, the cows don’t care! Do they need to be fashionable? Absolutely not! They just need to be well fitting for safety.

Baggy, loose sleeves and dragging pantlegs invite disaster. Baggy, saggy clothing catch on gate latches and fence. Overly long pants drag through muck and mud and can trip you up while working on slippery surfaces. Worst case scenario, your ill-fitting outfit catch and get tangled on moving machinery…dragging you, or ripping off an arm or leg.

Other Fashion No-Nos:

Other items I strongly advise you leave home while working with livestock:

  • Jewelry – no dangling earrings, necklaces, watches or rings. Rings – especially those made of Tungsten or ceramic material – are a big no on the farm. If a ring gets hung up on an animal or piece of equipment, you risk losing a finger.
  • Long hair – ladies and gentlemen, please tie back long hair. Sure it’s cute when a sheep or goat wants to nibble stray wisps… but it’s not cute when your hair gets snagged (or scalped) by heavy machinery.

5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

What’s all this talk about mud and poop being dangerous? God made dirt, dirt won’t hurt! Right? Mostly, but not totally…

Some bacteria and viruses that livestock carry are zoonotic. This means they can also infect humans. Taking some easy extra steps to protect yourselves, your family and livestock goes a long way in disease prevention.

Here are my top recommendations for cheap, effective personal protective equipment (PPE).


Durable, rip-resistant work gloves are a great addition to your everyday farm workwear. I personally prefer cowhide gloves for most of my everyday chores, as the leather is long-lasting, moisture resistant and doesn’t decrease my dexterity like many less-pliable fabric materials. If I need slightly more precision while working, I also keep a thinner pair of deerskin gloves handy.

Leather work gloves used for livestock handling and farm chores
Blue disposable nitrile gloves

Just like your clothing, be sure you choose the correct glove size. Gloves should be snug, without limiting your grip or finger movement. Remember, we are trying to prevent rope burns, blisters and skin breakage during bites or accidents. If your glove is too big, it will be easy to slip off.

If I’m working with sick animals, I make a point to switch into disposable nitrile or latex gloves before touching them. This cuts down the risk of me spreading germs to my other animals, myself or family members. Once the sick animals are cared for, I toss the disposable gloves and wash my hands. Disposable gloves save you the hassle of having to wash your everyday pair every time you work with a sick animal.

Ear Protection

I may sound like a wuss, but hear me out. Consider adding ear protection to your everyday farm wear. Why? Because you only have one set of ears, and when they stop working there’s little you can do to regain hearing!

The average lawnmower clocks in at around 85 decibels. Chickens crow and cluck up to 105 decibels when contained in a house. A pig squeals at 130 decibels, above the threshold which causes physical pain. And a jet airplane taking off barely tops our swine at 140 decibels!

Many farmers experience cumulative hearing loss throughout the course of their career. While a farm can be a peaceful, beautiful place to work, beautiful and peaceful do not mean quiet! Protect your ears as best you can.

Cheap, disposable foam earplugs are an easy addition to your uniform. Especially if you anticipate short periods of loud noise (i.e. when you’re operating the tractor, or sorting just a few noisy animals). If you can afford them, the most comfortable and long-lasting hearing protection device are over-the-ear muffs. A wide variety of ear muffs – both electronic and passive – are on the market today. Choose the make and style that are most comfortable for you.

Piglets squealing in pen
Women applying over-the-ear hearing protection
Coveralls or Bibs

While not an absolute must-have, a designated pair of farm coveralls or bibs are a handy addition to your farm attire. Farming is messy. Clothing picks up mud, poop, and dirt during daily chores. Some of the bugs (viral, bacterial, parasitic) hiding in those stains stick to clothes long enough to hitchhike into other pastures and buildings…and potentially other animals or humans.

Dirty clothes, boots and tools that piggyback germs to new locations are called fomites.

For the best biosecurity, dedicate a set of clothes – coveralls, bibs, or just the same jacket and jeans – to wear only on your farm. Did you help a neighbor work cows? Visit the sale barn? Switch into your clean, dedicated farm garb before working your own animals. Do you need to doctor a sick animal? Throw on a clean pair of coveralls or bibs, and switch out of them before re-visiting your healthy animals.

Sound like overkill? Maybe it is, but I figure I’ve got to do laundry anyways…better safe than sorry! Keep neighborhood livestock germs off your property and out of your house with dedicated coveralls or bibs.

6. Footwear

I shouldn’t have to say this, but here I am: flip-flops are never livestock appropriate. Unless you live in a barndo or shouse, ban flippies from your barn!

Find and invest in a durable pair of closed toe boots. I have reservations about steel-toe footwear. But chose what is most appropriate to your work environment. Livestock make manure and mud. And they walk on itty-bitty hooves that hurt when they step on you. Choose a boot that provides adequate protection and comfort.

Do you weather all four seasons of rain, snow, ice and mud? Pick boots with good insulation and solid treads. If you like to wear pullover style galoshes or garden boots, remember that animal housing areas get slick. Check that your soles have some grip.

Small Ruminants & Pigs

For pigs, sheep and goats I wear and recommend Muck tall rubber boots. They are easy to clean and comfortable on hard ground and concrete. Easy on, easy off makes switching out boots simple. And the insulation definitely keeps me toasty. For summer work, I switch out to Servus non-insulated, chemical-resistant rubber boots, available online and at Tractor Supply.

Horses & Cows

For cattle and horses I wear and recommend Ariat leather boots. Ariat has a wide selection of styles and price ranges. For everyday chores, I like their simple ropers. Here is the pair I wear. The leather has held up well and the soles are tough but comfortable.


Men who hunt and farm – my husband is insanely hard on boots. He swears by these Danner Desert Coyote boots. He wears them to hunt…and to ruck…and to chore. Hubby also wears them to church (just kidding). They take a lot of abuse and have held up incredibly well!

Don’t Be Stupid

If you’re going to be dumb, you gotta be tough. Follow these final safety tips.

Red sharps biohazard container with loose needles and syringes

7. Sharps Safety

Needles are tiny knives. While a clean needle stick is usually little more than an annoyance…a stab from a dirty sharp can make you very sick. Discipline yourself when handling needles and syringes, and dispose of used sharps appropriately. My pro tips:

  • Designate a sharps container. Do you need a fancy red biohazard bin like they have at the hospital? No! A sturdy piece of plastic recycling – with a lid – will do. I like to use empty laundry detergent bottles and Gatorade bottles. Choose something with thick, crush-resistant plastic and a lid.
  • Do not recap needles. Most times I’ve been stuck, it’s because I was recapping a needle. Resist the urge to recap. Throw the entire syringe, needle and loose cap directly in the sharps container.
  • Use sharp sharps. Some livestock medication delivery systems allow injection of multiple animals with the same needle before sharps replacement is needed. While multi-dose syringe systems are incredibly time and cost saving, do be sure the needle is sharp prior to use. Because dull needles are dangerous needles.
  • Don’t reuse single-use, disposable needles. The washing and re-sterilizing of needles for re-use is a dangerous job…and not worth the penny or so per needle you’ll save.
  • Wash your hands! If you suffer a needle stick, wash the affected area asap with warm, soapy water. Depending what was in the needle, and how deeply you got stuck, a call to your family physician may be in order. Some medications will abscess (fill with pus) or necrotize (kill) tissue if given outside a vein. Talk to your doctor about whether you need further treatment.

8. Situational Awareness

Most working farms – even little “hobby” operations – utilize a variety of vehicles and heavy equipment. Farm trucks, ATVs, tractors, skid steers and tractor implements are common.

Non-farm vehicles generate on-farm traffic too. Fed Ex, UPS, USPS, the propane truck, the meter reader, the school bus, Door Dash, and lost tourists visit our farm regularly.

My point is, it’s not just your livestock who can run you over!

A green tractor, delivery truck and personally owned vehicle driving to a farm

Power vehicle accidents are extremely common in all agricultural sectors. Unseen vehicles and equipment can strike and kill you. Watch for cars, trucks and tractors and be sure the drivers see you too. Have little kids? Or other free-range critters? Consider installing a driveway gate to have better control over on-farm traffic.

If I can teach you one thing today, it’s to remember nothing is safe. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Put down your phone and focus on the task at hand. Situational awareness saves lives.

9. If Not Friend, Why Friend Shaped?

A bull, ram, buck, boar, stallion is not your pet. He is not your friend. Can he be well mannered and well trained? Of course. Does he tolerate your coddling, pats and treats most of the time? Sure. Could he kill you in a nanosecond, whenever the whim strikes him? 100% YES.

  • Bulls, rams, bucks, boars, and stallions have one job. If you get in their way or lose respect for their purpose in life, it could cost you dearly.
  • Never turn your back on a bull, ram, buck, boar or stallion. Ever.
  • Untrained, inexperienced help should never handle breeding animals alone.
  • Children should never handle breeding studs (I’ll die on that hill), and absolutely should never work with them alone.

Animals Act Like Animals

Animals act like animals (thank you Dr. Obvious). Why am I on this soap box?

Because agri-tourism – especially in animal sectors – is booming. Viral. Crazy trendy.

And the internet will lead you to believe that nothing bad could ever happen from cuddling a cow or trying goat yoga or swimming with island pigs.

Woman doing yoga pose with goat balancing on her back
Woman's arm hugging a brown cow

10. Respect, Appreciate and Enjoy Your Livestock, But Do Not Trust Them

Does Dr. Jenna just secretly hate animals? Is she bashing the entrepreneurs behind these fun animal experiences? No! As a matter of fact, I adore goat yoga and have a ton of respect and appreciation for local livestock rescues! Animal agri-tourism is a great way to teach folks about farming, animal husbandry and food production.

So why all the doom and gloom?

Because it’s so easy to forget that animals will react like animals when stressed, surprised, injured, sick or otherwise out of their natural element. It’s easy to anthropomorphize animals, and our society does it all the time.

It is unfair and unsafe to blindly trust an animal. They have minds of their own. Animals are trainable. And many farm animals enjoy human companionship. But it is dangerous to ignore their survival instincts and behavior.

Anxious brown horse wearing a bridle tossing its head
Fight vs. Flight

A calm, well-mannered animal will bolt or lash out if it feels threatened. Most livestock species are prey animals, and will choose flight over fight when stressed. But even if you aren’t the target of a “fight” outburst, you’ll be collateral damage while they make a quick escape.

I’ve got friends in agri-tourism who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on liability insurance. All because farm visitors make dumb choices. And I have veterinary colleagues who’ve ended up in intensive care because they let their guard down, or overly trusted an animal.

The internet is full of adorable, cuddly farm animal selfies. But don’t slip into a false sense of security. Don’t assume safety around domestic animals. Even a tame animal can hurt you.

Enjoy your animals, love them, show them respect, but don’t 100% trust them.

Do good, be smart, stay safe! Thanks for reading!

For more articles, check out our Livestock Library. Have a question? Ask Dr. Jenna here.

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