A two-week farm safety inspection campaign by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) focusing on the management of livestock at calving has concluded that, in general, farmers are prepared and have good facilities despite the odd one who is still relying on baling twine and gates.

A range of farms were inspected over the last fortnight ahead of the calving season – a time where the risk of injury to farmers increases significantly.

One in five fatal accidents which occur on farms involve livestock, according to HSA data.

Almost one-third (32%) of these deaths caused by livestock are from cows or heifers that have freshly calved.

Knowing your escape route before entering a pen with a cow and calf is the first piece of advice that Pat Griffin, senior inspector with the HSA, would give to all farmers.

While the risk of attack is normally higher for those dealing with suckler cows, dairy farmers, he said, have often been caught out by unsuspecting cows also.

“Obviously, the dairy cow is far more used to being handled and generally they wouldn’t attack as much as suckler cows. That said, we’ve had several farmers who have been totally shocked that their dairy cow has attacked them. Any bovine, whether it’s a bull or a cow, they are all capable of attack with sometimes little or no warning,” he said.

Signs of attack

It is imperative, he said, that farmers are aware and understand the signs animals give when they are about to attack – their head movement, the movement in their tail and their overall aggressive demeanor.

“This time of year, we have a spike in farm injuries and fatalities around calving time and we are quite concerned about that. If we look at trends over the last 10 years, livestock deaths represent about one-fifth of all farm deaths – there have been 37 people killed on farms by livestock in the last 10 years,” he said.

Another statistic, he highlighted, is that over 50% of non-fatal farm injuries are now associated with livestock. Handling equipment, as a result, is key.

“That’s over 2,000 farmers seriously injured by livestock. We have a significant challenge to try and change that. The campaign we’ve just run, we asked them questions about how they’re managing livestock, particularly around calving time.

“Nine of the fatalities in the last 10 years have been as a result of attacks with bulls and the rest, 28, have been from cows with calves and other cattle.

“We’re trying to give farmers good advice and information on how they can stay safe on their farm,” he said.

Calving pens

Good calving facilities, adequate calving pens, calving gates, good underfoot non-slip conditions and fresh bedding are all essential requirements, according to the HSA.

It is also important to have well-designed calving pens that are located adjacent to cow housing facilities.

“It’s about being prepared, actually doing some risk assessment of how you’re managing your livestock, always beware of a bovine. Going into a pen with a bovine, you have to have a planned escape route,” he said.

Open pen calving

Griffin said that an area of concern highlighted during the campaign was open pen calving, where 15 or 20 cows may be calving down in a pen together.

If farmers want to do this, he said that they need to think about protecting themselves and think about how they are going to get out if an animal attacks.

“Even putting a round feeder in the pen with them, or a bale of straw in the pen with them so that they can move around it and protect themselves from an attack.

Calving is under way on Tullamore Farm. \ Odhran Ducie

“The average age of farmers now is 57 or 58. Flexibility, mobility and their speed of movement is an issue if they are in an open pen and if an animal attacks and you need to get away to a place of safety,” he said.

“Prioritise your own safety and welfare, think about your fatigue, think about your own physical wellness and never put yourself at risk with a bovine. They are always able to attack and they and you never know when it is going to happen.

“I think that’s why we have had such a spike in livestock injuries; animals are unpredictable, machinery is absolutely predictable.

“An animal can change at any moment, whether the animal is sick, whether it hears a noise, whether a dog is in the background – anything can get an animal to turn and attack.

“And the ferocity of these attacks is actually shocking, we’ve seen it on video, sadly, where people have been very seriously injured with an attack or a fatality, the ferocity of it is frightening.

“So, really, farmers must protect themselves, they must plan their escape route and they must always have a way out of the pen,” he said.

Compact calving

The nature of compact calving can often lead to rushing and farmers being under severe pressure, Griffin said.

“Farmers are trying to get most of their calving done in a four- to five-week period.

There is a spike in farm incidents at this time of year. \ Odhran Ducie

“If farmers are going to do that they must plan it, they must risk-assess it, they must think what the consequences will be, what sort of pressure they’ll be under and will they have help to get through that period.

Maintain a good physical barrier, such as a strong gate between you and the cow, to provide protection if the cow does attack

“If you’re trying to calve down 200 cows or more in that compact calving period, there are consequences and you’re going to have very busy periods where you are going to need help.”

As important as it is to have proper facilities, it is just as important, Griffin said, to have adequate backup during busy times.


The HSA has said that you should never tag a calf while the cow is unrestrained in the pen.

It can be a particularly dangerous time as the calf will generally cry out which can result in a cow attack.

The advice is to maintain a good physical barrier, such as a strong gate between you and the cow, to provide protection if the cow does attack.

Otherwise, the cow should be restrained in a head gate so that she cannot attack.

Health and help

Looking after you own physical and mental health is important.

Fatigue can become a significant safety factor as it will impair good judgment, particularly if intervention is necessary at calving time, the HSA warned.

The HSA has urged farmers to seek help or contact your vet for advice if they are fatigued.

“Farmers need to prioritise their own safety. They must plan their work properly, they must have proper facilities and plan their escape route from a pen.

“I would ask them to look at our website. We brought out new guidance on safety around calving time and lambing time. “It’s very detailed, it’s been written by the working group from the farm safety partnership, it’s excellent guidance and it’s very simple.

“I think if farmers follow it, they will certainly reduce the number of deaths and injuries with livestock,” he said.