You’ve just received a new shipment of stocker steers needing to be processed before being turned out onto summer pasture. These cattle have had human interaction and have are on the “flighty” side, but safe to walk through on foot. Fly tags need to be administered, booster shots given and you’re planning on putting a hot brand on their left hip – all on a time crunch before the next load comes rolling in. What do you know, looks like a few of them have bald patches from lice, better throw in the pour-on.

The facilities are decent and cattle tend to work well through them.

Looking at the clock, you gather up your mismatch crew to come up with a game plan. One of them has several years of experience handling cattle. The other is fairly new to the game, but has turned out to be pretty reliable. And then there’s Charlie. He’s neighbor’s teenage son you agreed to give a job for summer to try and keep him out of trouble. He has zero experience handling cattle and despite guidance, still yips and flaps around like a coyote on fire around cattle. You’ll consider his summer experience a success if no one throws a cattle prod at him.

Since time is of the essence, the first instinct to get cattle through the chute quicker than Ho Ho’s on an assembly line at a Hostess plant is to increase your crew’s energy and try to “run” the cattle through. On a second thought, that may not be the best idea.

“The only way to work cattle quickly is slowly.”

“Patience is a great virtue when gathering and working cattle. When we get in a hurry, inevitably we put excessive or incorrect pressure on cattle, which usually results in an unintended reaction from the cattle,” says Ron Gill and Rick Machen of Texas A&M University in a cattle handling paper.

'The only way to work cattle quickly is slowly'According to the two experienced cattleman, there are three simple ways to communicate with livestock. These are:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Touch

Sight being the most preferred means of communication. Since human noise can potentially cause more harm than good, it might be good idea to keep Charlie out of the back cattle pen as much as possible.

“Human noise is usually stressful and marginally successful in getting the desired result. Sound should be used as a secondary method and only used when sight is not adequate,” they say. “Distracting sounds shift their focus away from the desired direction.”

When working any set of cattle, the cattlemen’s five principles are suggested to increase efficiency while reducing stress.

  • Cattle want to see you

“Understanding their vision is foundational to handler positioning and cattle response. Cattle have excellent peripheral vision with the exceptions of blind spots directly being (large) and in front of (small) them. When working from behind and to keep cattle from turning, it is important to stay in their sight by moving from side to side.”

  • Cattle want to go around you

“This allows you to position yourself such that, when they do go around you, they are pointed directly at the intended gate or destination. They’ll think it was their idea to go there.”

  • Cattle want to be with and will go to other cattle

“A herding instinct is natural among ‘prey animals.’ As Stockmen we can take advantage of this natural instinct as we work from the front of the cattle. State the front – the back will follow.”

  • Cattle want to return to where they have been

“The natural instinct of a cow is to return to the last known safe or comfortable place. The simple principles of the return box or ‘Bud Box’ takes advantage of this instinct. Low stress handlers use this to their advantage when sorting and moving cattle from one corral to another.”

  • Cattle can only process on main thought at a time

“If cattle are thinking about anything other what you are asking them to do, change their focus before putting pressure on them.”

The cattlemen suggest applying pressure from the side of cattle so you don’t fall into their largest blind spot, only applying pressure when cattle have a place to go. According to them, success of cattle handling is a direct correlation to knowing when, where and how much pressure to apply. In order to be a good stockman, being able to get a good read on cattle is a must.

“The most important point to remember about the flight zone is not the zone, it is the area immediately outside the flight zone,” they say. “Stockmen must learn to anticipate, read and manage this ‘boundary’ area.”

For more tips, diagrams and ideas on how to improve stockmanship and efficiency from Gill and Machen, click here.