In my first two columns, I introduced and made the case for low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as an essential component of operating sustainable livestock operations. In this column, I will begin to lay the necessary foundation for the forthcoming discussion of principles, techniques and practical applications.
Bud Williams, the originator of LSLH, stressed the importance of five requisite elements or foundational layers of LSLH before talking about principles, techniques and practical applications. The first layer, the one upon which the other four rest, is mindset.
Pre-Bud I never thought about it — and nobody I worked with did either — but proper mindset is vitally important to good stock handling. So what does Bud mean by “mindset”?
First, he insists on having “a learning mindset.” That is, we have to: (a) be willing to learn how to work cattle better, and (b) keep asking why. For instance, why are my cattle behaving the way they are? Why aren’t they doing what I want? According to Bud, “Knowing why we do something is more important than knowing how to do it or what to do.” If we understand the why, we can usually figure out the how and what. Unfortunately, many stockmen don’t ask why. Instead, they simply do what they’ve always done on the rationale that “We’ve always done it this way” — a common phrase heard in the industry — and are resistant to learning a different and better way.
Second, we have to take responsibility for everything that happens with our cows (i.e., we are 100 percent responsible for how they behave). Instead of getting upset and coming up with excuses or blaming the animals, which is what stockmen typically do, we need to assume responsibility for what happens, so we can learn what we should have done and what we can do better the next time.
Third, we need a desire to work our cattle properly and not just focus on getting the job done. As Bud emphasized, “Focus on learning how to work animals properly. The goal should be to get a good job done right. Don’t set a goal; set a standard.” Ironically, if we work our animals properly the job will get done, and done easier and quicker. Post-Bud I have experienced this over and over, and it’s made my life and that of my cows a whole lot better.
Additionally, when we talk about mindset we’re talking about how we think about our livestock. This is important to understand because what we believe about them determines our subsequent behavior. So, let’s look at a few conventional beliefs and subsequent behaviors and contrast those with low-stress beliefs and behaviors.
1. Cows are dumb, brute, uncooperative, unwilling animals.
2. We work with cattle physically.
3. Cattle are difficult to work.
As a consequence of these beliefs, we tend to: (a) make animals do what we want with the aid of fear, force, coercion and mechanical aides (e.g., prods and hot shots); (b) seek mechanical solutions (e.g., tub systems) to resolve behavioral problems; and (c) use as much help (e.g., riders, noise) as we can muster.
1. Cows are smart, sensitive, cooperative and willing.
2. We work with cattle mentally.
3. Cattle are easy to work.
As a consequence of these beliefs, we tend to: (a) communicate effectively with our animals through the application of proper technique which renders fear, force, coercion and mechanical aides unnecessary; (b) make our idea the animal’s idea and seek behavioral solutions, not mechanical solutions; and (c) use minimal help (e.g., fewer people, no noise).
The main point here is that if we are to transition from conventional to LSLH, we need to examine our beliefs about our cattle and how those beliefs determine our behavior. Then, if we want to change our behavior, we need to go about changing our beliefs.
In working livestock, our mindset can either help us or hinder us. With a conventional mindset, working cattle can be very difficult and exasperating for both humans and animals. With a low-stress mindset, working cattle can and should be easy, rewarding, even fun, and our animals will certainly appreciate it and reward us with improved manageability, health and performance.