Building trust while working with livestock, part 3
by Bud Williams
Last issue Bud talked about pressure/release, the flight zone, movement, and working with dogs. Here Bud shares some of what he has learned over the years, and answers a question about labor requirements for herding.
When I first started working on ranches, I had the same problems everybody else has, and a lot more. Because I was so damn stubborn that I'd stay out there all night if I needed to. If I went to get a bunch of cows, I was going to get them. I didn't care if I got in at midnight with them, or I didn't get in till next morning with them--it didn't matter to me, I was going to get them. So I not only made as many mistakes as other people, but I probably made a lot more.
I've been working [at Vee Tee Feeders] for a little over seven years. I've never worked anyplace before in my life for any length of time. I always would go work on a problem. As soon as that problem was satisfied, I moved on to the next one. I never dealt with a crew. I wouldn't even take a job if I couldn't run the owner off. The reason for that was this: If a rancher had a problem, and I went there, he's going to tell me what to do, he's going to continue to have the same problem, because he's already told people to do that in the first place, that's why he had the problem. So in order for me to come work on any job, they had to give me literally the power to tell them, go to town. Leave me alone, let me do it.
When I was so young I was so shy I would never go to any school parties. I spent all the time I wasn't working at the ranch in the mountains. I wasn't interested in people.
I spent 40 or 50 years working with livestock, trying to learn as much as I could about livestock. Then I started working with people, and I ran into a few little problems. I had to change everything about me to get along with people. It's very easy to work with livestock, and it's very hard to work with people.
When you're working livestock, and you're doing something, the livestock will tell you what the other people are doing. You can either get mad because they're wrong (or it might be because you are wrong) or you could move to compensate for what they're doing. Then they're not wrong.
When you go home, and you work with other people, don't try to make them copy what you think you've learned. You're going to get nowhere, you're going to antagonize them, you're going to upset yourself. If you have learned anything here, and it's going to help you, then it doesn't matter what they're doing. You should be able to move around to compensate for it, and everything should work. Then when you're all done, you can say, look, you was pushing on that corner, so that forced me to move up here--which was okay, we can handle it fine--but if you had moved over here, we'd have gone on. Most people take that better than the other.
The experts are almost always wrong. If they're any good, they will be always wrong. What I think that you should do is get very good at what you do and do it very well, and you don't need to listen to experts. I'm embarrassed every time I put on one of these schools. I wouldn't go across the road for somebody to tell me how to do something. I'm going to learn how to do it myself.
Other people aren't going to take the time to do that. But you've got to be very careful who you pick as the expert. It is just as hard to find an expert in any of these things, as it is to learn it yourself.
My dad told me when I was a little kid: Do not let the neighbor run your farm. What he was telling me was this: If you want somebody else to give you advice, then listen to them. If you think the neighbor could run your farm better than you, let him come over and run it, and do what he tells you. Don't just get advice from him.
The advantage that I have is I go all over the country and I work on all the farms. I'm not telling you how to run your farm. I'm giving you experiences I've had, knowledge I've accumulated.
What you want to realize is I've learned what I've learned with people telling me I was nuts, telling me it wouldn't work. I was 'Crazy Bud'for years. Now I'm this wonderful guy who knows all of this stuff, gee whiz. But I was Crazy Bud for a long time. I was the most independent, no-good S.O.B. in the country. I had a guy stand and tell people that with me standing right there. But I still learned to do it. Because every day I went out and tried to do a better job.
[When I grew up] we didn't have radios or anything. People told stories in the evening, after we got the work done. In those days they didn't have all the government programs, so older people would stay with whoever they could stay with. We usually had one or two older people who just stayed with us. They weren't relatives. We sometimes hardly knew them. They had no place else to stay so they stayed with us. These were people who had experienced all kinds of things related to livestock. So I got a lot of these stories as I was growing up. These were people from all over. We had one guy who lived in the Oklahoma Territory before it was a state. We had guys who worked in Texas, New Mexico. My dad herded goats when he was eight or nine years old. These were all the things that were related to me. When I got out into the "world" and people started saying you can't do this and you can't do that, it just didn't sound right to me because I'd been told while I was growing up, stories about all of these things being done. So I started in trying to do some things.
One of the first ranch jobs Eunice and I had--they had about a thousand cows at this ranch. They would split the cows with the heifer calves from the cows with the steer calves. They put the cows with the heifer calves over in this little rougher country that wasn't quite as good a feed, and the cows with the steer calves went to the best feed for the summer. Those were the ones they were going to sell. They were going to keep the heifers.
Eunice and I were taking care of the cows with the heifer calves. We also had a lot of haying to put up, and irrigating to do. They said you'll have to ride every day and shove them away from this creek. There was a stream went down through this area for three or four miles, and the range went up from this. There was kind of a jeep road up through there, and they had put out salt.
We didn't have anything like that to get around in, so the next day I take a packhorse and I go pick up the salt. And I go up on the mountain. This was new to us, we hadn't been there before. So I hunted out the springs, and places for water, and some of them weren't any good any more, and we dug them out and put salt up there. Then we started drifting these cattle up there. Now this was before I had learned any of the things that I've learned now. The only thing I knew was what I heard people say could be done. We would go up every morning and gather up whatever was along there, and we would move them up to areas where there was feed and water and salt. We'd move the salt around when we needed to.
When the summer was over the cowboys came from the main ranch to gather these cattle. We're getting ready to go in the morning, before daylight, and one of the guys said this is no trouble, all you do is just ride up the creek, they'll all be there anyway.
Well, we all rode horseback up the creek, and there wasn't one animal and the grass was like this. They were all up on the hillside. They just couldn't believe it. It had never happened before on this ranch. They always ate it off down next to the creek and there was always lots of feed up on the mountain. Well we didn't know much, but I knew that people had done this in the past, and I thought it could be done, and it worked.
So then I read an article in a magazine about a dairy in southern California. They had 28 acres. This was in 1957. They said that they'd taken this pasture and split it into 28 pastures. Each one to an acre. They put their dairy herd into this for one day, the next day it went to this one, and so on like this. These guys were trying to sell a pasture mix, so you'd have the hot season, the cool season grass and all this. But they were explaining the production this dairy got from grazing this way. Hell, I thought, I can do this out here in the mountains. We're on a ranch, 30,000-50,000 acres, no fences, lots of Forest Service in there.
This is when they made you ride and scatter the cows. We'll gather these cows up and we'll put them over here, and then we'll move them over here, and over here, and we're going to get a lot more production.
This particular ranch we were on, this particular guy, he got real cranky that we were doing this. We started moving this one cow herd. We took them to areas they never grazed. We didn't know that much about it, but we knew we could do it. We'd drive these cattle back into these areas. At first they'd all come out.
Finally he came one day and he was quite angry with me. "All you're doing is running the weight off of my calves." I said, I don't think I am. He said you can keep doing it (he knew I wasn't going to quit, and he didn't want me to leave), but you leave the Rock Ranch alone (the steer calves).
The Rock Ranch calves were always the heaviest. They would always be 40 or 50 pounds heavier than on the side I was. That fall when we shipped and weighed them, the calves on my side weighed 50 pounds more than the calves on his side. I chased 50 pounds extra on to them. Because the grass in the lower country was in such good condition, we didn't have to feed much hay that winter.
I don't need for people to believe me. But this is what it could do for you if you will use it. You have to believe that it can be done. The reason I got started on this, is because of the stories that were told to me when I was young. If my dad could go out and herd goats when he was nine years old, and stay out there for a week on a mountain, and it's as rough as any mountain there ever was, it was a brushy, steep, rugged, rocky mountain that they grazed them on--and at the end of a week, one of his brothers (there were five in the family) would come out with a packhorse and supply, and he would stay, and the one who was out there could come back home. If he can do that, then we adults could sure go out and herd some cows.
In response to a question about how many people it should take to herd 1,500 or 3,000 cows:
The minute you're concerned about how many people it takes, you're doomed to failure. What you should be concerned about is how well a job is done, and whether it's worthwhile.
Most people don't work very hard to make it better. Most of their effort is put into trying to figure out how not to have to do any work. Whenever you're going to work with animals, or have a ranch, there is a certain amount of work that must be done. If you don't do that work, then you're going to find that there's a lot more work to be done because you didn't do it. If you go at it right, it usually is fairly simple. If you don't, if you go to make shortcuts, it not only isn't simple but it ends up a heck of a lot of work.
So in order to say how many people it should take, and how many animals they can herd, the first thing you have to do is to get some people who actually know how, and get some animals that could be worked. But nobody wants to do that. Because what everybody is thinking about is how much they could save if they don't have anybody out there. If you don't have anybody out there, that saves the maximum amount on labor. It doesn't get the job done, but nobody seems concerned about getting the job done. The only thing they are concerned about is how few people you can do it with.
Now we don't have anybody who knows how to do it, and we don't have animals that know how to be worked. We don't have anything to fall back on. We don't have any system, we don't have anything to even start from.
What I've found with the things that I've worked with and the things that I do, is that if you are doing a good job you can actually hire more people, because you get better production, you have less problems, you have happier people, you just get a better job done and you get it done cheaper. You could actually hire more people, and pay them more, and get a better job done. As long as you try to do a job with the fewest number of people, and the most shortcuts that you can take, you're going to get lousy job, your people are going to be upset because you're overworking them. You're not overworking them physically, you're overworking them mentally, because you're asking them to do something that they don't know how to do. And this is almost an impossibility--to get somebody to do something continually that they don't know how to do, and expect them to be happy and stay.
People have to have at least a limited amount of success to be happy. As long as you basically feel that you're failing, or the people that you employ feel that they are failing, or just the fact that the job isn't getting done, that's not being successful. This is what you find when you start to work with anything of this nature. It's very simple.
We've worked on ranches where Eunice and I took care of 3,000 yearlings and 200 first-calf heifers. We moved them every day to new areas. We grazed areas, we knew exactly where we put them, we knew exactly where they'd be. This was a large mountain ranch. It wasn't any problem. It wasn't even that hard a work to do. Most of the time, since Eunice had other things to do, I was doing it by myself. It was a very simple thing to do. But it would have been impossible for somebody who didn't know what they were doing, or to have animals that wouldn't work for them.
Actually, if you could go out there with 10 people, and get a really good job done and get your animals to working, then you could trim it down to what would work. But nobody wants to do that. Everybody wants to start out with a job that they never even considered could be done, didn't even want to do, and overnight you're going to take 1,500 or 3,000 head and one person's going to take care of them. That's not going to happen. That's something that could happen in the future if it was done properly, but it isn't going to happen now, and it will never happen as long as people have the attitude that that's what they're trying to do.
We've been to some big feedlots, and their only comment is, if you can cut out more help, then we're interested in what you've got to show us. They're not interested in better production, they're not interested in less health costs, they're not interested in the fact that it's just done better. The only thing they want to do is get rid of the hired help. They want to use machinery. Well, we've done that now for enough years that we're in the mess we're in.
I've been spouting this for I don't know how many years. It's only in the last two or three years that anybody's even listened to me about herding animals. Now all of a sudden everybody wants to be an expert overnight. If they would have started this 20 or 30 years ago, by now you could do this with one person. You've got to have ranchers who are willing to either work with their cows, or let somebody who knows what they're doing work with their cows, and get them to working.
Somebody comes to one of our two-day schools. They go away with a lot of knowledge, but very little skill improvement. So there's probably nobody who can come to a two-day school, and go back and have the skill level to get cattle to working, and get themselves to working, so that they could handle 1,500 or 3,000 cows by themselves or even with two or three people helping them, and do a job to where they were happy and to where everybody else was happy. This is something you work toward.
If you're going to be a doctor, you go to college for four or five years, you work as an intern for another two or three years, you go to be a doctor. It's probably easier to learn to be a doctor in this day and age than it would be to learn how to actually herd 1,500 or 3,000 cows by yourself.
People think that they can come here, spend two days, and go back and be a total expert on it. All it is, is a basis that starts them out. You work at this, and you get better. You have a goal or something that you're working toward out there, that you get to over a number of years. You don't go from zero to perfection in 15 minutes.
What is so important is that you have people who are learning what to do, and gradually and progressively learn what to do. That's what I've been spouting for years. The reason that I do what I do, is because my feeling is, the only way this could be taught is the same way that you would teach somebody to be a veterinarian, to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer, or whatever. There would have to be an actual course that was set up over a period of time, and people actually started out learning how to work animals, then starting slowly to learn to work groups of animals, until they work their way up. This may take two or three years.
But because this is working animals, people think that everybody knows how work animals, some people are a little better than others, but everybody knows how. You can have someone come out from the city that has never been around animals in their life, and they know how to work animals. Everybody is an expert. They're not.
Whenever you go to teach something that has been totally lost or is that far behind, which our herding or our livestock handling is so far behind that it's absolutely awesome, you're talking about taking time.
When we went up to the Arctic, the guy wanted me to come up there and teach them how to work with the reindeer. I told him it would take somewhere between 10 and 15 years. His comment was, oh we got lots of time. I got up there, I hadn't even got off the plane, and they were telling me to hurry. They wanted it done immediately. Well I could do it. I could go out there and get a bunch of reindeer, 2,500 to 3,000 reindeer that were as wild as the elk or whitetail deer in Idaho, and within three or four days, you could walk up and touch most of them. I could herd them, I could put them where I wanted, they'd stay where I put them. But they couldn't do it. And they never did learn to do it, because they wanted to do it in six months. If they'd let me take the young people, who were trying to learn, and spent 10 or 15 years, they could have herded the reindeer and it would have worked.
As far as I know there is nobody who teaches people how to herd animals. But yet nobody is interested in me doing more than a one- or two-day deal. Nobody is serious enough about this to say look, we're going to set something up to where people can actually stay with it long enough to learn how to do it.