If you’re moving cows and one turns its head to look at you, it’s telling you that you are getting too far in behind it and it doesn’t like it.

From the February issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

In the last two columns I reviewed the first two of five requisite elements of low-stress livestock handling (LSLH): mindset and attitude. In this column we will look at the third element — “reading” animals.              

LSHS is based on a mutual understanding and communication between bovine and human. That is, when our animals understand what we are telling them to do and we understand what they are telling us in response, and we communicate effectively with them (which is done through proper technique), they will willingly do what we want. To do this, however, we must be willing to “read” our animals. In fact, according to Bud Williams, “Everything is reading the animals. Every step you take and every step the animal takes you’re communicating, so you have to learn to read the animals.”

Understanding and communication are based on one thing — proper position. Through years of keen observation and experimentation, Bud figured out that proper position at a walk is all the pressure we ever need to move cattle wherever they are physically capable of going. And, here’s the crux of the matter: The only way to know what that position needs to be is to read the animals. According to Bud, “They will tell you where to be and what to do.” And, alas, that makes working livestock easy.    

To reiterate, proper position at a walk is all we ever need to effectively work cattle, and the way to identify that proper position is to read our animals. That is, how they’re responding to our position and whether we’re getting the response we want will tell us if our position is correct or not. If we’re out of position, we won’t get the response we want, but if we adjust and put ourselves in the proper position we will get the desired response. As Bud describes it: “Cows will position you where you should be. If you watch ’em they’ll take you right to the spot where you need to be to move ’em properly. If you’ad what your animals are saying they will tell you right where you need to be.”

Here are some examples:

1. If you’re moving cows and one turns its head to look at you, it’s telling you that you are getting too far in behind it and it doesn’t like it.

The rider in the picture should move more out to the side until the animal’s head straightens out and it lines out. If the rider ignores what the cow is telling him and he persists in following directly behind, it may slow down or even stop and face the rider, or worse, break back.

2. When moving cows (or a single cow) stop, they’re behavior is telling you that you are too far away and can move closer.

3. If a cow takes off faster than you’d like, it’s told you that you applied too much pressure too fast.

4. Conversely, if a cow doesn’t move as fast as you’d like, it’s telling you that you haven’t put on enough pressure or you’ve pressured incorrectly (e.g., pressured at the wrong angle).

5. If cows balk in a crowd pen or going up a chute, they’re telling you that you’re out of position.

Conventionally, a lot of stockmen think that cattle are difficult to work because that’s been their experience. Consequently, they rely on coercion. Bud pointed out, however, that “Cattle are actually really easy to work; the problem is that we won’t read them and listen to what they’re telling us.” As a result, we try to coerce them to do what we want. Also, what people generally do is what they want to do because they have a predetermined idea or plan of how things should go, but the problem is that the cattle weren’t part of the planning process. If we would simply learn to read our animals and respond accordingly (i.e., position ourselves properly so they understand what we want), coercion becomes unnecessary.

In conventional livestock handling, when things don’t go right, we tend to do one of two things. First, we tend to force the issue (which we often succeed at because we have more firepower). Rather, when things don’t go right, we should stop, back up and read our animals to determine what they’re telling us. If our animals aren’t responding how we’d like, we have to assume responsibility for the fact that it’s because of something that we are not doing correctly (i.e., improper position). In other words, there’s a breakdown in communication. The way to find out what we need to do to correct the situation and get our animals responding how we’d like is to read them and adjust our position.

Second, we tend to fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over when working livestock, more or less as a memorized routine. Working with livestock is too fluid and dynamic of a process that precludes doing it by rote. Instead, we have to read the animals to see what to do and if what we are doing is correct. Sure, we have a bag of techniques which we can draw on — which I’ll be getting into in future columns — but choosing the correct technique and applying it properly for any particular situation will be determined totally by reading the cattle. As Bud put it, “We have to work with what we have, not what we think we have, or should have, or want to have. Don’t copy what you’ve done before; rather, read the animals.”

I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of reading animals until I worked at Big Bend National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park rounding up trespass and wild stock. If I went in with a predetermined plan it was doomed to fail. Also, if I misread the animals they may not give me a second chance because they were gone! So, I had to watch them very carefully to determine how they were feeling and reacting to my presence and adjust accordingly. I had to read them to determine how much pressure they could take, how to approach and start them so they didn’t bolt, and how to drive them in a controlled way and into captivity. If done properly, it worked every time.

Whit Hibbard is a Montana rancher and editor of Stockmanship Journal, available at www.stockmanshipjournal.com.