Building trust while working with livestock, part 1

For a decade and more, Bud Williams has been teaching methods and attitudes about handling livestock that are different from what many people in the livestock industry have grown up with.

Bud was born in 1932 on a dairy and mixed livestock farm in southern Oregon. After he and Eunice married in 1952, they worked on livestock ranches in northern California, where Bud began to get a reputation for bringing in difficult animals. His methods evolved from his powers of observation, his awareness that many things were possible, and his commitment or stubbornness.

After their daughters left home, Bud and Eunice traveled around the continent from the Aleutians to Central America, taking livestock jobs that were difficult and interesting. For the past seven years they have headquartered at Vee Tee Feeders in Lloydminster, Alberta (see cover story).

The following has been excerpted from the Stockmanship School that Bud and Eunice Williams taught at Lloydminster on April 5-7, 1998. They are excellent teachers and we recommend the School in the strongest terms. Contact Eunice Williams for information or reservations.

For practical advice on how to get started with Bud Williams methods, see also Steve Cote's column, which began in our last issue. In the following excerpts, Bud describes the current situation and how it got to be that way, the reasons people resist change, the benefits of the low-stress methods, and some of the beliefs, behaviors, and stockmanship methods that will enable people to learn and change. Next issue we will continue with basic principles of stockmanship and using dogs.

The livestock industry today

People have a lousy attitude when it comes to working livestock. We want to do this, we want to do that. This is not going to get us near as far as if we do what we need to do.

Also, we want to make animals do things. My whole theory is, I let animals do things. Anytime that I need for an animal to do something, if I position myself properly, I can let it do it. It's doing what it wants to do, it's doing what I want it to do, so we can both be happy. Anytime that you go to make an animal do something, you create some problems that you don't need. Anytime that we want to do something that isn't what we need to do, we create problems. If you like problems, that's the perfect way to have all that you want and maybe more.

Want Need
Make Let
0 100

What we want is immaterial in getting a job done well. If you go to everything you want, and try to make animals do it, you end with about zero. The farther over here you come to what you need to do, and letting the animal do what you want, you get closer and closer to 100 percent. Whenever you go to make something happen, you create maybe more problems than you can handle. Animals willingly do these things for us if we let them.

If animals would not do this willingly for us, then we could do nothing with them. They're bigger than us, they're stronger than us, there are more of them than us. These domestic animals that we have are so easy to work with that it's absolutely awesome--if you just give them a chance. Our attitude is what is so important.

Almost everything we do in the society we live in is a structured thing and an educated thing. We're educated to do most of the things we do. We go to school for 12 years or longer. In a sense, there is nobody who teaches people how to work animals. There are people who go around and say this is right, or this is wrong.

This is an art that we had at one time and that we basically lost. This is something that the livestock people have got to understand that they had better bring back. It is such an important part of the industry, they better get it back, they better get to learning these things and understanding. It doesn't matter whether you have a feedlot, a cow-calf operation in the mountains, a stocker operation--this can benefit you to no end.

We don't do that good a job in comparison to what I know could be done. When we do it right, it's amazing the results we get. When we do it wrong, it's not very nice, the results we get. So I know that it's us. The problems that the livestock industry has, almost every bit of it goes right back to us. These are the things that we better work on, where people can learn and get it back on track.

We shortcut things and it causes us a lot of trouble. It isn't a life-or-death situation so we shrug it off. It gets to be a very expensive situation.

The way of working animals was kind of developed in the Southwest a long time ago, and the conditions were rough and tough, and we had rough and tough people to do it, and the more sensitive people went on and did something else.

Most of the people that work livestock probably shouldn't. It has been my feeling as I've been around the country, seeing these things, the people who should be working livestock are doing something else, because we've developed a system that they just won't put up with. They don't like the hollering, the yelling, the commotion, the turmoil, so they go on and do something else. The people that have stayed with it and kept that going, and talk about cowboy tradition and all that--those people should probably be doing something else--not doing what they're doing and doing it so poorly.

We need people that are more sensitive to what the animal is asking us to do. If we would be more sensitive to that, then these jobs that we work on would be so much easier to do. I'm not going to see it happen in my lifetime, but that doesn't matter, I still think it should happen thataway.

When I first went [to Vee Tee Feeders in Lloydminster], they would not let the girls work when they were loading fat cattle--it was too dangerous. They do it all the time now, and they do it better than the boys. It doesn't require a big strong rough tough ram 'em jam 'em type guy to work livestock. We need sensitive people in the industry.

You go around any ranch operation, any feedlot, anyplace, and people are yelling instructions to people when they don't have a clue what they're yelling about. They don't have a clue what they're telling the people to do, whether it's right or wrong, they're just yelling. This should not be.

You go holler at somebody to get out of there. Well, where is out of there? Where do you go to get out of there? And no matter where you go, it's not out of there for them.

We need to have something where we can actually communicate what we mean, what we need for people to do. You want somebody to do something, you should be able to know that if you ask a person to come toward you that that's going to get the job done. If you have somebody say, when I move ahead you move ahead, you should know that that will get the job done. If you tell somebody that they're too close, that should be what you need. If you tell somebody they're pressuring at the wrong angle, you should be able to tell them what the right angle is. These are the things we need to know. And then when you work with people, you can explain to them.

We need to be able to be all on the same page. We're not. You can take a really good cowboy, and another really good cowboy, and they cannot communicate to each other what they want to get a job done because they're each going in a different direction. They may end up getting the job done, but it is so different. In fact, reasonably good guys don't get along too well, because they know how to do it alone, but together they mess each other up. We need to get something to where we understand it well enough that that doesn't happen.

If you can't communicate your ideas of what you're doing, you probably also can't do it. When I first started in working with livestock and doing some of these things, after a few years this good friend of mine wanted me to come and show him how to do something. And I went to show him how, and I could not show him how. I went home and told Eunice I don't know anything. I knew how to do it, but I could not explain it to him, I could not show him. That's when I really set to work, to understand so that I could communicate to other people what is necessary to do.

These animals would like to be a herd. Almost everything that we do to them is to make them not want to be a herd. We gather them up, we jam them too tight, we cram them in the corrals, we chouse them around. So to be with a group of animals is the one place they don't want to be now. All of a sudden we decide that it's nice if they'd be a herd and they should stay where we put them, and we think they should just do that because that would be nice for us. We've got to make it a little nice for them, and then they will, because that's what they want.

We cannot do some of these things because our animals are not to the point where we can do it. There are very few people who can get on a horse that is unridable and ride it and go do a job. There are very few people who can do much with livestock that is not trained to work. That's why we build smaller and smaller fields, stronger and stronger fences, or with more electricity going through them. We build our corrals stronger and higher because of the difficulty of working our animals. People don't think they have any trouble, because they've got them in a narrow place, high walls, by God they can get them through. But it costs them more money in those chutes and alleyways than they could ever imagine. If they outlawed hotshots tomorrow, the cattle industry would shut down. It's only a matter of time before they're outlawed.

Our instincts are totally wrong to work animals. What we instinctively do is almost 100 percent wrong to get what we say we want. If you have 20 acres, you'll have just as much trouble as the guy who's got 20,000 acres. We always work at a level where we barely get it done. We get as good as we need to get. We've reached a point now where we need to get better. That's why you guys are here. That's why I talk that way. I don't talk that way to other people. They're not ready to get better. They don't particularly want to get better. They're satisfied with where they're at.

We've got to get the right attitude to get better. We can't just get better because we want to. We've got to get better because we go out and do a better job. It's easy to get better than what we are.

Why we resist change

The way that I work animals, people don't want to work animals that way. If people did want to work it the way I do, then we'd all be doing it and I wouldn't have to be up here talking to anybody. We just flat don't want to do it that way.

But we're starting to get into situations now where we need to do it that way. So if we can get to the point where we'll move over to what we need to do, and forget about what we want to do, this will work a lot better.

We even have some people now that are doing a respectable job of this. The thing that's the difficult part, is getting people to believe that they can do it, and getting them to put the effort in that it requires--which is not as much effort as they are putting in to do it wrong.

Our attitude is the whole thing. If we had the right attitude when we go at this, we could learn it without me saying anything or without you coming to this. The only way you're going to change and to get there is to work real hard to do that and to break those habits.

I spent some time with this one rancher. All he said, all day, is "why haven't we learned this? Why did we have to wait for you to show up?" That's all he said, all day.

That's true. Why haven't we learned these things? The reason we haven't is because we won't get better every day. We get so good, but that's good enough. And then we find out that isn't good enough, then we got to go get a little better, and that's good enough. Most of the young people that worked with me, when they got to a certain point, they could get a good job, they didn't want me showing them any more.

If you work a horse, doing this like what I say, it doesn't take long for the horse to learn. They learn it so much faster than people.

You're not going to get there overnight. I got there overnight after 40 years of hard work. Do what you can do, be happy with that, and get better and better. Doesn't matter if you're in a feedlot situation, cow-calf ranch. The more you work your animals properly, the better they get. Then these things start to fall into place.

What we have is a mentality that's been bred over the years, is not to train cattle--to chase them, to scatter them, to do all of these things. Now all of a sudden we've changed it. We decided we've got to work with a lower stress type of deal, we've got to move our animals better, we don't even know how. So we're not going to step from one to the other in 5 minutes. We've got to work at it.

The benefits

When you work animals the other way, it's absolutely awesome how they change. They start to trust you, they're comfortable where you leave them, they're comfortable with what you do with them, they work around the corrals better, everything is better.

This is a very learnable thing. It is absolutely awesome the amount of production you can increase if you manage your animals better. [In northern California] I had a standing deal with any rancher that I could increase his production 50 percent and do nothing but change the way he moves his cows.

[At Vee Tee Feeders], when we get new cattle, it doesn't matter if they are going to the fields, a feedlot pen, replacement heifers, it doesn't matter. We spend a little time working with these animals, moving from here to there like we would anyway, but doing it properly. And you can do anything with them, and they do it easy and they do it willingly.

We can eliminate so many of the problems when we work our animals better. There's a lot of the things that we would like to do that we can't do just because our animals don't work properly for us. This is something that's so important. These things work, no matter where you're at, what you're doing.

One guy has a single electric wire between his cows and calves. Another guy, he has 800 cow-calf pairs. He separates them 400 at a time, he brings them up to a gate, he stands at the gate and lets the cows go through and turns the calves down the fence, and they're weaned. He says they don't bawl, they don't walk the fence, they just go to grazing. He has no health problems with them.

Whenever you get done sorting cows and calves, your cows should be paying almost no attention and your calves should be paying almost no attention. It should be a non-event.

One of these people wrote us a letter:

Our use of these methods began to establish a herding instinct in our cow herd, allowing us to handle large numbers of cattle with very little help. I handle herds of 400 to 500 with the help of my two dogs. Using Bud's methods helped me tremendously in using dogs to herd stock. I never had a good cattle dog until I began learning this. Now they're all good.

The reestablishment of the herding instinct not only makes it possible to handle cattle without stress, it also facilitates the use of intensive planned grazing on our ranch.

The financial return to our ranch has been phenomenal--though I feel that the greatest benefit has been that it's an absolute joy and pleasure for all the members of our family to work together handling cattle.

Believing that it's possible

Almost anybody that sees something that's possible to do, they can go home and figure out how to do it--if they want to. If you think it isn't possible, if you think that cows are just naturally hard to handle, that fat cattle are just naturally hard to handle, and all of this, then you're not even going to try to do different.

There's people doing things that I really didn't think they'd be able to do. I told them they could. And they go home and do it. And there's other people who couldn't do it if you went and did it for them. It's the people that can do it. You've got to believe you can do it, and you've got to have your cows so that they work for you. And then it's relatively simple. If you've got your cows so that they work for you, then I would say yes you can easily do that. Now that's assuming that you don't have 15 people helping you who have 15 other ideas of how to do it. You have to have everybody working on the same deal.

Everything that I say pertains to every bit of this. I don't have to talk about feedlots for the feedlot people, I don't have to talk about the mountains for the mountain people, I don't have to talk about cow-calf for the cow-calf people. All of this stuff pertains. When I work one animal, I'm using exactly the same things that I do to work a thousand animals. When I'm working animals in an open field, I'm using exactly the same things that I do to work them in the mountains, or in the brush, or whatever. To me there is absolutely no difference, whether you're in a completely open field that's as flat as a floor, or whether you're in the mountains with trees and brush and all kinds of obstacles.

The only difference is what you put up here. If you decide it's more difficult, it's a lot more difficult. If you decide that it's no different, then it's no different.

Now I go all over the country. For 40 years, I go to a ranch, I go to a feedlot, I go to whatever, they've got a problem--something that they cannot do or have a real difficult time doing--and I can step in and do it. The only reason I can step in and do it, is because these things work. I don't know the place, I've never been there before, I've never worked these animals before. I can't do it because I'm so great and wonderful. I can do it because these things work.

These jobs that we think are difficult, are only difficult because of the way we approach them. We would go up into the Arctic, we would have a herd of reindeer up there, 30 miles from a corral, there's no fences. There's 5 million acres that they run their reindeer on. They would take me out in the helicopter and set me down. If you got within half a mile of these, they'd run for 4 or 5 miles. I worked with these things for 24 hours (there's 24 hours of sunshine up there in the summertime)--I worked with them, walked them into a corral. These things work. They work extremely well. But they won't work if you halfway do them.

You drive a car for ten years and you don't have a wreck. Why can't you drive cattle for ten years without a wreck?

As I go through these things today and tomorrow, just listen to them. They won't hurt you. If you don't want to do them when you get home, they won't bother you, they're not harmful. If you listen to what I say and go home and do those things, you'll find they really work.

This is not about going and getting that one old cow that nobody else could get. It's not to go get a bunch of wild cattle that other people have trouble with, or put them through a gate that people have trouble with. This is about working your animals in such a way that those things aren't difficult when you get there. So you don't end up with that one old cow out there that's hard to get. You don't end up with a gate that's hard to put animals through.

If we work our animals even close to what I consider properly, they just do these things. We are either teaching our animals to do something good, or we're teaching them to do something bad. Every time we're around our animals, we're teaching them one or the other. If you constantly teach your animals so that they do it well, or do it easy, or do it good, or whatever term you want to use, it isn't going to be long before you can do anything. If every time you go out there you teach them bad habits, you teach them to do things wrong, or to be difficult to work, then every time you work with them it's going to be difficult.

It is no different than having a horse. If you have a horse that's even remotely properly trained, it's a joy to ride it and do things with it. If you have a horse that's totally untrained, or completely spoiled, it is a miserable miserable thing. Until you change that, it continues to be a miserable miserable thing. Well most of our livestock is like an untrained horse, or a badly spoiled horse--most of our livestock.

If you would really grasp this working one animal, and really understand it, then you could go and do all these things. We have to understand what we're doing, we have to understand the effect it has on the animal, and then we have to do the things that gets the job done we want. Nothing else. We don't do something just to be doing something. We don't do something just because we'd like to do it.

We have to get our animals in the proper frame of mind to where they will willingly do these things. Otherwise it will not work as well as you want it to.

Don't try to go from where you're at to perfect. You're not going to get there. Go from where you're at to a little bit better, and you will be absolutely pleased with the results.

Learning from the animal

Now here's one of the things that you want to keep in mind when you're working any kind of animal. They will tell you exactly where they want you to be, to get them to go where you want them to go. If you have an opening over there, and you want an animal to go through that opening, he will tell you exactly where you need to be to put him through that opening, assuming you pay attention. When you start getting in too far behind them, they start looking, because they don't want you there. If you go on, they're going to turn around. Now they're not going to go through that opening, because they're not even looking there, they want to go by you. So then you've got a fight.

The animal will tell you exactly where you need to be to do these things, if you will pay attention. It's really important that you understand that. When you're driving a group of animals or even a single animal, they are very aware of what all the people are doing.

The universities, they won't touch this, because there's not any absolutes in this. They want an absolute. They want to say that you do this, and this will always happen. Then if you do this, then this will always happen. Well, that's not the way it is. If you do this properly, it will happen. It's kind of like driving. If you're driving a car, and you step on the brake, it will stop it. Unless you're on ice, and then it may even speed you up.

If you do these things, they work. But it's how you use them, in other words, how much you use at certain times, is how well they work. Just like your brakes. There's no one that can tell you that anytime you want to stop, all you've got to do is slam on your brakes. Because there are several situations where you better not slam on your brakes. You can still stop it with the brakes. But you got to do it a little bit different than just tromping on them.

All of these things, they work, but they're not absolutes. If you have an animal that is here, and it turns its head toward you, either you're getting in too far behind it, or you're too far away. That's about as close to an absolute as the things that I work with will be.

When you start getting in too far behind that animal for it, it wants to see, so it turns its head. So it has basically told you not to go any farther. If you go any farther, you're going to get a negative reaction.

Always position yourself as best you can, no matter what you're doing, where you can do most of these things from real close to the same spot. Now I've worked with animals as wild as any you'll ever have to work, and from one position I could guide and move these animals. As the animals move, this spot will move. In order for you to find where this spot is at, and to keep this spot, you've got to keep constantly checking. So if you're going along with a group of animals, you're going to have to be moving constantly, testing to make sure where that is, cause otherwise that spot gets away from you, and then maybe you have a tough time finding it again.

People start to tell me all the things I got to look out for. I just ask them to be quiet, I don't want to hear. Well, you're going to need to know this. Oh no. I don't need to know anything. I don't want any of that stuff. The animals will tell me what I need to know.

We went to one big mountain ranch, the guy that had been there for 30 some years, he said, I'll take a few days and show you where the trails are. I said, I don't want to know where the trails are. He said, the cattle will get away from you. I said, no they won't, they don't live long enough. I didn't want him to show me his trails, because he'd picked out the trails where the wind didn't blow, this and that. I wanted to see where the cattle wanted to go. They're going to want to go on their trail a lot better than they'll want to go on my trail. And I really did not have any trouble.

[After getting some difficult cattle into a corral.] When I got down there, one of the guys come over and he said, "you fell in eight badger holes. But you got the cattle. I wouldn't have fallen into one badger hole, but I wouldn't have got the cattle. I watched you. You never took your eyes off those cattle. You didn't have a clue where you were walking."

He was very aware of the fact that these cattle were very difficult to work. I was working by myself on foot to put animals through a very difficult gate, and I never took my eyes off those cattle. There was no way I could even look at the ground. I had to see everything they were doing. I could not miss any move.

You must see what's going on. You cannot just look at what you're going to do. You must see what's happening. What you're doing is quite irrelevant if everything else is going to pieces.

It really is difficult for people to do this. It's not an easy thing, it's not a natural thing. We want to look at what we're doing. We don't want to look over here. When we go over here to get this animal, we want to see just what he's doing. We shouldn't even care what he's doing. Because it isn't going to matter. It's what these are doing that matters. He isn't going anywhere. We probably shouldn't have gone over there and bothered him, he probably just would have followed on if we left him alone. But we can't do it.

Here and now

I've worked around ranchers all my life. I'm not here to criticize. But every cowboy, every rancher I ever worked with will do just that. They'll go over here to do something, and they'll just about half get it done, and they see something over there, and they run over to do that. Here's what I tell people. If you go over here, then go and do it. Don't even worry about that over there. If you're worried about this, then stay and do it, don't go over there.

We just can't leave things alone. We've got to go fool with it. We've got to make a mess on both sides. This is what really destroys us. We'll say that our animals have started to go a little bit the wrong way. And we just have to go get these. Okay, those are going the wrong way, so now we're going to drive these the wrong way too. Why would we want to do that? Why not just leave those alone, get these back to going the right way, and then go let those go with them?

You can't drive animals thataway and not have problems. Stay here and do this right, and then go over there. If you go over here and you think you've done this right and then you start to leave, and they tell you no, don't leave, then don't leave yet. Don't worry about that over there. And you won't find anybody that works stock that pays a bit of attention to what I just said, but you should.

When we're driving animals, our mind is on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, instead of what's happening right now. What an animal does is very obvious, but we're not looking for that.

When you're driving in rush-hour traffic in any city at all, you've got to be watching what the car is doing alongside of you, in front of you, behind you, cars coming in from the side--you've got to be watching all those things. You don't have to ask somebody else what you watch for. Now it's a heck of a lot simpler to see what the cows are telling you than it is what all these cars are doing. We've never learned to pay attention.

We're so busy shoving this one or going over to get that one that we don't pay attention. One of the more important things I try to get across to people is, open your eyes.

I can stand here and see what everybody here is doing--or I can look at this person over here and see nothing but what that person's doing. This is what we do. When we're driving animals and go over here to move this animal up, we see absolutely nothing but that. We don't see what these others are doing. Then when we turn to go over here, we don't see what that animal is telling us.

That's what you got to learn to do. It's easy to do. But you've got to do it. The only thing that matters is what's happening right now. Not what happened last week, or what might happen.

Everybody in this room will work stock better when they're alone. Of course. But yet, that should not change, just because there's other people there. The reason it changes when other people are there, is because you can blame them. And we do love to do that.

[At one place] the way the gate was, they'd go on the inside of the pasture, and he had a terrible time, so he wanted me to help him. So I go over there, and as soon as I go into the field, why, "Do you want the gate open or closed?"

"No, I'm not talking about gates, I'm just here to work your cattle." So then we start to go across the field and I'm driving them away from the gate.

And he said, Bud, the gate's back here.

I said, look, if you want to talk about gates, let's go up to the house and talk about gates.

He said, Bud why are you being like this?

I say, as long as your mind is on that gate, you ain't never going to get these cattle.

If we go out here and get these cattle working for us, we can put them anywhere. When you go to put that bull in the trailer, that's what your mind is on. Your mind is not on working the bull, it's on the trailer. So he goes to the pond.

Your mind should only be on one thing. And that is to work with that animal until it will work for you. The only thing that's important is how you work that animal, and how you get him to working for you, that's what you got to get through up here. Where you park your trailer is irrelevant. If you're not going to work the animal right, you're not going to get him in anyway, so don't even bother to take your trailer up there, it's a nuisance to drag an empty trailer up and back.

Straight lines

One thing that animals like is a straight line. They like us to move in a straight line. They do not like for you to go like this, curving around.

We went out in the Aleutian Islands and gathered some cattle that may never have seen a man in their lifetime, a bunch that hadn't been worked for 20 years. If you started curving, around like this, you just didn't get them, it was that simple. When you worked with the reindeer, it was the same thing. When you worked with elk, it was the same thing. If you want to get a job done, and do it properly, you better go in straight lines with them. Our domestic animals let us get away with murder, you can get away with almost anything. You don't get a very good job, but you can get away with it.

I like for things to go in a straight line around animals. Because that's what they like. It doesn't matter whether you're afoot or horseback. Whichever way you're moving, just go straight until you're ready to turn, and then go straight again.

When you start to curve, you're going around it. Every sense in it changes immediately. It doesn't like it. So whenever you're working animals, do not try to curve. They also don't like us pressuring them out of a straight line.

When I first started teaching people, I never even thought about the straight line, because I just knew that that's what you should do. Then I realized that this is a very important thing.

Some will fight it for three weeks, some will fight it for three years, some will fight it for 30 years. These are simple things, but that it doesn't mean that it's simple to do.