In the last four columns I reviewed the first four of five requisite elements of low-stress livestock handling, including mindset, attitude, reading and working animals. In this column we will look at the fifth element — preparing animals. Metaphorically, each of these elements is a layer of the foundation of the low-stress livestock handling house that we are building.
After working with our animals, which involves establishing control and leadership, and teaching them a basic skill set — like speeding up and slowing down, stopping and turning — the next step is to prepare our animals for future production events.
Bud Williams stressed that “It’s very important to prepare or train your animals for what’s to come, even if it’s a month off. The idea is to teach your livestock to do things the way you want to do them.” Just as we horsemen will prepare our young horses to be saddled and ridden, for example, we should prepare our cattle because failure to prepare is preparation for failure. As Temple Grandin notes, “Every time you are working your animals, you are training them. You can train them to be easy to handle, or you can train them to be difficult.”
“Pre-Bud” it never crossed my mind that my cattle were actually very trainable and that every time I did something with them I was training them to handle better or worse, and preparing my cattle for what’s to come was a foreign concept. But now, I’m keenly aware of that, and do everything I can every time I’m with my cattle to train them for the better and to prepare them for what I’ll be needing them to do in the future. If we train our animals to handle and behave the way we want and prepare them for what’s to come, then all the production events become easy (e.g., weighing, weaning, sorting, processing, loading out).
In this regard, there are two things to keep in mind. First, we have to teach our cattle to be able to handle what we’re going to be having them do, like how to go on the scale or up the chute, so they do it calmly and willingly. In a sense, we have to teach them what’s expected of them in this human world. Second, we shouldn’t wait until we have a problem. Instead, we should prepare our animals beforehand, then we don’t have a problem. As Bud used to say, “You don’t wait until you get there and then ask, ‘What do I do?’” Unfortunately and unnecessarily, that is exactly what many stockmen do. Even at my family’s ranch, we used to enjoy the challenge of getting into a wreck and then figuring out how to get out of it. Now we’d rather not get into the wreck in the first place through what Pat Parelli would call “prior and proper preparation.”
The question, then, is how do we prepare our animals? Most importantly, they first have to be handled calmly and quietly and kept in a normal frame of mind. If they are not, then they are likely to be in survival mode and not in a state of mind to learn anything (except that we are the predators that we’ve been trying hard to convince them that we aren’t). Next, an excellent thing to do is “dry runs.” Dry runs are rehearsals for a future production event. That might mean a dry run through a new facility you’ve built, or a dry run through your existing facility with your weaner calves or newly purchased cattle. Another example would be a dry run across the scale upon delivery of stockers in the spring in preparation for shipping in the fall. A dry run can make shipping day much more efficient and easy for both the cattle and handlers. Consequently, it can save a lot of time and the animals’ shrink is significantly less which, of course, has a positive economic impact.
Another example is taking your weaner calves (especially your replacement heifer calves) and doing a dry run through your open processing system (e.g., leaving all gates open, stopbacks in the chute tied up and the squeeze open). In so doing, they can learn that they have nothing to fear and that there’s a way out. It’s also a great idea to have a little fresh hay (the tastier the better, like alfalfa) waiting for them as soon as they come out of the squeeze. We have done that at our operation, and it’s made all the difference in future processing events.
The point is that if we prepare our animals properly we can easily do anything that we need to do with them, and they will stay calm and quiet and do it willingly. If we don’t prepare them for what we are going to be doing, we’re likely to have trouble which has negative consequences for animal performance and future manageability.