From the April issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

In the last three columns I reviewed the first three of five requisite elements of low-stress livestock handling — mindset, attitude and reading animals. In this column we will look at the fourth element — working animals. “Working” animals is an idea that is absolutely foundational to Bud Williams’ methods, and as far as I know is original with him.

According to Bud, “When you go to work with one animal — or if you go to work a thousand — you must get that animal to working for you before you go to do anything else with it.” Conventionally, most stockmen do exactly what I did for decades. When they go out to work cattle they dive right in and basically out gun ‘em, often relying on either fear or force to coerce the animals into doing what the handlers want (but usually not what the animals want), and with whatever aids are necessary (e.g., noise, hot shots, dogs, ropes, tubs, etc.).

But let me ask you this: To have a good cow horse you need to work with it, right? To have a good stock dog you need to work with it, right? Well, how about our cows? Not many stockmen think about working with their cows to make them handle better. I know I certainly didn’t “pre-Bud.” That was a foreign concept. But now I do. It’s not unlike doing ground work with a young horse. In the bronco-busting days, twisters snubbed up or earred down an unbroke horse, saddled it, got on and let ‘er rip. That was standard operating procedure at the time, but now it’s obsolete. Today, horse trainers always do ground work first, including round-penning and longe-lining to establish some degree of trust, leadership and control, then taking the horse through a graduated series of learning steps before they ever get on.

So, that begs the question: Why don’t we do that with our cattle? Instead, many cattlemen are still in the equivalent of the bronco-busting days when handling their cattle. The problem with that approach is that they haven’t done their ground work, so they lack trust, leadership and control, which often leads to animal-handling problems. And, as an unfortunate consequence, whenever you have trouble with animals you’re usually teaching them something bad. So, it’s a downward spiral.

Bud’s point is that, just as we now do with horses, we should do with our cattle. That is, we should work with them first to establish some degree of trust, leadership and control before we attempt to do anything else with them, like trail them out.

And how do we do that? We teach them that we can move them in a controlled way, that we can slow them down, speed them up, stop them, turn them and drive them places. It means establishing an accelerator, brake and steering wheel. We’re teaching them a basic skill set because they don’t know these things until we teach them. In a nutshell, we’re beginning to teach them to behave the way we want them to behave so that we have very manageable cattle, but very few stockmen do this.

So, for example, every summer I take delivery of around 500 commingled yearlings for custom grazing on my family’s stocker operation that I manage. Pre-Bud I just opened the gate and drove them to their first graze, and sometimes it was a real wreck. So, post-Bud, I’ll first “read” the cattle to see what I have and what they need, e.g., if they’re stressed or have panic movement that needs to be recognized and dissipated (see Guest Editorial in the February 2015 issue of Drovers CattleNetwork). Next, since I have no idea what these cattle know, I’ll begin to work with them in a corral to determine if they’ve been worked on horseback, or only on foot, to see if they know how to respond to pressure, how to speed up, slow down, stop, turn and be driven places. If not, I’ll do some basic ground work with them until they do. That ground work might begin with round-penning them in my round corral just as a horse trainer will flag a bunch of colts.

Then, I’ll turn them out in a larger corral and take them places, and practice slowing them down, speeding them up, stopping and turning until they look to me for leadership and are responsive and manageable. I’ll take them through gates from one pen to another, down the alley and across the open scale, and other little exercises to teach them that I’m in control and to get them to look to me for leadership. Then, and only then, do I turn them out, whether it’s just out the gate into an adjacent pasture, or driving them to a distant graze. The little time that this process takes is well worth the effort and pays huge dividends in the manageability of the cattle. Also, Bud insists that it has positive implications for the emotional well-being and performance of the cattle, as well as feed conversion and pasture utilization.

As Bud advised, “The better you work animals the better they’ll work for you the next time you work with them.” Unfortunately, oftentimes in conventional livestock handling the more we work with cattle the worse they get, and people resort to doing more of what didn’t work (e.g., more help, more noise, more pressure). People need to realize that every time we’re around our animals we teach them to be either easier or harder to work, we teach them something either good or bad, and if we want really manageable cattle we need to work with them.

Whit Hibbard is a Montana rancher and editor of Stockmanship Journal, available at