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Low stress livestock handling, part 1

(From Patterns of Choice, 1990s) We are pleased to announce a regular feature on low-stress livestock handling contributed by Steve Cote (two syllables, long e). Steve is the NRCS district conservationist for Arco, Idaho, and has devoted considerable time to learning and testing livestock handling methods and approaches that work, and has paid special attention to the methods taught by Bud Williams. What follows is Steve's interpretation and understanding of these methods.

With Steve's help, low-stress stockmanship became a crucial element in the management of federal grazing allotments near Challis.

These principles and practices are holistic in that they integrate emotional, biological, and financial aspects, and deal with underlying behaviors and beliefs, both human and animal.

After a basic introduction to low-stress handling principles, which is the foundation for keeping livestock herds together on the range, Steve will explain how the low-stress principles play out in trailer loading and trucking, in the use of dogs to create calm and consistent movement rather than as furry hotshots, in placing a herd on the range, handling poison areas, riparian areas, weaning on the range, pulling out sick animals, and in carrying out all aspects of a grazing plan. Steve will also go through the steps of teaching animals to move well, to turn, to slow down, to speed up, to drift, and eventually stop and stay.

Bud Williams of Lloydminster, Alberta is probably the best livestock handler in the world. Bud has 35 years of experience with livestock around the world, and in helping others handle stock effectively with low stress. With the help of his wife, Eunice, he has developed a remarkable method of handling livestock through sacrifice, practice, and effort, often under criticism and ridicule.

Although Bud and Eunice developed this method themselves, some believe that stockmen of the open-range era must have known some of what they teach, or they couldn't have done some of the things described in historical records. Too, some older ranchers remember their grandfathers being able to keep large herds all together and handle them and place them with few men in difficult places and circumstances.

Bud's methods are based on innate behavioral principles of herding animals, and are thus effective for every class and breed of livestock, in large or small numbers. They work with bison, horses, sheep, goats, reindeer, cattle, and elk. They work on every type of range, with livestock in every condition, and with the toughest and wildest stock.

Benefits of Bud Williams livestock handling

The use of Williams's methods will result in calmer livestock, with lower stress levels and disease. Better weight gains and better conception rates on the range have been reported by those using these methods.

The low-stress methods contribute safety and security for the stock and for the handler. They get the job done, and lower the amount of stress, labor, and expense required to control livestock on the range and in the corral. End-of-season gathering is easier, quicker, and cheaper.

On unfenced ranges, these methods are enabling people to gain unprecedented control over time and timing, which benefits the health of perennial grasses, soil condition, forage productivity, and quality.

Grazing association members and their riders in several states are practicing Williams stockmanship methods with the primary purpose of keeping cattle herds together and even to place stock where they want them to stay without building fences. In addition to improvements in herd health and riparian conditions, this provides associations with great flexibility in accommodating the needs of other range users such as hunters and recreationists.

By using Williams's methods, livestock can always be found together as a herd on the range. They can be placed to stay in an area all day. They will also go to drink at creeks and soon return to the main herd on their own accord. Large herds can be moved quickly and quietly with few riders. Once the herd is trained, there will be no cows on the fight and no bunch quitters. When you start the move, all the stock go because they all want to be with the herd. No stragglers are left to loaf in the riparian areas. Stock are moving on to fresh feed and you can minimize animals that return to regraze plants too soon.

Timber and brush ranges don't present a problem if you handle them right. Find one animal and you will find them all. Move a few and they all go, quietly and calmly. You can move a herd around poison plant patches or recreation areas. You notice that bulls aren't brushed up during hot days--they are with the herd.

Even in July, you see that the stock have almost no flies on them because you are ahead of the previously grazed areas and the manure that most flies hatch from. Maybe there will be a lot less pinkeye to have to treat.

The low-stress methods enable ranchers and grazing associations to implement a grazing plan that is emotionally, socially, environmentally, and financially rewarding, with multiple and complementary benefits.

These methods do not require the use of special facilities or equipment. You can use good dogs or no dogs, or be on foot, horseback, or using a vehicle. In many cases these methods require a change in our belief system about handling livestock, and some learning and practice.

Innate behaviors of cattle (and most stock)

  1. Herd animals are social animals, comfortable in a herd. They have good memory, and remember in what situation (such as in the herd or away from it) and in what location they were comfortable or uncomfortable. They want to put themselves in that situation and place where they were comfortable.
  2. Livestock like to follow movement. Stock that are moving at a good walk will draw others with them. Stock just plodding along at a slow walk will not draw others into moving or perpetuate movement. Good movement is generally a walk or very slow trot, similar to what most people would find to be a fast walk.
  3. Stock drawn in by movement of other animals will then keep the others going, and so on. A whole herd keeps itself going in this manner. This is a critical aspect of moving herds.

    Livestock also like to move in the direction they are already facing. They prefer to move off straight ahead from a standstill, and to continue straight ahead when moving.

  4. They are prey animals and are sensitive to pressure within a clearly defined flight zone. If a human or other predator moves into the flight zone, they will move. Stock will show you when you are close and when you are well outside it. The zone varies with our posture and attitude, past training, and weather.
  5. Stock feel less stressed (more comfortable) if they have two or more directions to go when pressured. Excessive pressure, causing bumping and crowding in a herd, is about as stressful as anything we do to stock. Fast moves (either our movements or how fast we push them) heighten the animals stress level, as do noises louder than normal talking.
  6. Stock want to see what or who is pressuring them, which is why they will circle or veer around you and keep their eye on you if you pressure from behind. Most stock, especially cattle, are impatient when pressured.
  7. Most livestock respond quickly to good handling and learn things in a deliberate way (more so than horses for instance). They learn quickly and become conditioned to respond to pressure (by finding out how to relieve it) and other training to stay as a herd, stay placed. They grow more sensitive to consistently used cues, and faster to respond. They can learn, for example, that it is okay to do certain things like go around you or by you through an opening or up a chute.
  8. The shoulder point is the fulcrum or turning point. If you move in a straight line toward the shoulder or behind, you're generally going to move the animal forward. If you aim and move toward a point ahead of the shoulder, you will most likely turn the animal.

Remembering these characteristics allows us to formulate sound handling techniques for low stress and effective stockmanship.

The fundamental principles we are going to use to train livestock are those of pressure/release and conditioned response. A cue with bison or cattle is to move into their flight zone. The quicker the pressure is relieved following the desired response, the quicker they learn.

Starting your stock in the winter

Take the time to train your cattle to be comfortable with handling. Teach them to understand that when you pressure them, all they have to do is move off with good movement and they can relieve the pressure. This only takes a minute or so with the average animal.

Basic training on the stock prior to turnout is important to facilitate a herd staying together and responding well to good handling. Doing this initial training while feeding or checking during the winter will save time and effort over doing this on the range.

Just a few minutes a day getting your stock "people broke" during the winter, while feeding or checking, is much easier than teaching them on the range. Because animals follow good movement, it is not usually necessary to train all animals, just a percentage.

To begin training your stock, approach an animal from the side, find the flight zone, then move into it and allow the animal to move off. The animal will let you know when you are near the flight zone by turning, cocking an ear at you, then perhaps looking with both eyes at you. If it is looking with both eyes you are either in the zone or close. (If you are working in a corral, you may already be in the flight zone when you enter it, so you're really just working so the animal will learn that you will only come so far.)

The average animal should move straight ahead (in the direction it was facing). This is what you want--to teach them to move off calmly when pressured and move straight away. When an animal moves, back off, getting yourself out of the flight zone. If the animal moves far enough away from you and gets you out of its flight zone, that is okay too. Do this a few times and they will have learned to move straight off from your pressure.

Teaching them to move off with calm and consistent movement is important in keeping them moving and encouraging others to move with them as a herd. To do this, pressure the animal again to get it to walk out at a good pace. If it slows, pressure again and it should move right out, even at farther and farther distances. Remember always to allow the animal to relieve the pressure by getting out of the flight zone, get yourself out of it, or both. Resist the urge to send it on its way when it is going right. If you do this there is no reward for the animal.

You are done with this lesson when the animal responds consistently to your pressure by moving out at a good walk, in the direction it was headed, and the animal is calmer in its response than it was before you started the lesson. Cows and most stock, like horses, will remember the last lesson and act accordingly next time you pressure them.