While most cattlemen feel confident in their animal-handling skills, an objective assessment of human and animal behavior could reveal opportunities for improvement. And by taking steps to reduce stress on cattle, managers could improve the long-term performance of cattle, address welfare concerns and boost labor efficiency.
It can happen to anyone: Bad habits slowly creep into our everyday tasks, or those of employees, without anyone taking notice. In animal handling and stockmanship, Texas A&M University Extension livestock specialist Ron Gill says bad practices can become “normal” just because no one is taking the time to measure and document what is happening. Ranch and feedyard managers, he says, can benefit by stepping back and evaluating how things are working.
North Dakota State University veterinarian Jerry Stokka agrees. Stokka, whose faculty position focuses on livestock stewardship, says problems with animal handling at the cow-calf level reveal themselves when cattle reach feedyards. Producers and veterinarians, he adds, should look at the big picture, evaluating labor, handling, nutrition, facilities and genetics as components of animal stewardship and animal health.
Gill says a series of self assessments NCBA developed for the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program could serve as a good starting point. The series includes assessments tailored for cow-calf, stocker and feedyard operations, allowing producers to evaluate their own management including animal-handling practices. The assessments use objective scoring to measure components of animal handling at the chute or during loading. Numeric scores for use of driving aids, number of cattle slipping, falling or running out of the chute or number of cattle not caught properly in the head gate provide indications of proficiency in each area.
Your self evaluation could, however, take different directions and include a variety of methods and measurements.
Montana rancher Whit Hibbard has focused on animal handling and stockmanship on his family’s ranch and on educating other producers as publisher of Stockmanship Journal, an online publication detailing the philosophies and applications of good stockmanship. To begin, he says, producers need to be honest with themselves and accept the possibility their skills might not be as good as they think, accept that there are ways to improve, and be willing to break old habits and learn something new. This is not as easy as it sounds, he adds, as some experienced cattlemen are threatened by the challenge to their knowledge and tradition and are resistant to change.
Next, they need to honestly evaluate their weaknesses by asking themselves a series of questions: Do my cows behave the way I want? Do my cows willingly do what I tell them to do? Do they perform as well as I think they should in terms of weight gain, milk yield or morbidity rates? Are my cattle happy and healthy?
Stokka boils it down to one question: Do you or your employees dread working cattle? If a rancher views moving or working cattle as a miserable chore, it’s probably because the cattle do not cooperate, suggesting problems with handling practices, with facilities, or both, he says. Identifying and addressing the problem will improve the handler’s attitude and job satisfaction, shrink his work load and reduce stress on cattle.
Look for evidence
Gill suggests taking a close look at places where damage occurs to facilities. Bent gates or broken latches could indicate you are overloading a trap or corral. Broken or damaged fencing, or even worn paint on steel-pipe fencing, could suggest a poor design that causes cattle to press against that part of the fence. Gill says he has visited auction barns that routinely had to repair certain parts of their loading alleys or other facilities until they recognized and fixed a design flaw or changed where and how their people were positioned to create better cattle movement.
Gill says many operations have worked to reduce the use of hot shots in the processing area, which is good. He suggests also scoring the use of other driving aids, such as rattle paddles, and looking for ways to move cattle without these tools.
Due to the time commitment, owners or managers might not monitor their hands or contract laborers on a day-today basis. Consider arranging for an employee or family member to make a video of processing activities to use as an assessment and educational tool, Gill says. You might be surprised by what some crew members do.
Stokka says he assesses problems with animal stewardship in much the same ways he does with disease problems or performance losses — by looking back at the herd’s management history. When possible, he begins by assessing what goes on in the herd around calving time, including the body condition of cows, genetic makeup of the herd and environmental conditions at calving. The cow’s condition before and during calving influences her ability to transfer passive immunity to the calf through colostrum, and environmental conditions, such as when calves are born outdoors during a spring storm, add stress that can have life-long impacts on the calves’ immunity and performance.
From there, he’ll evaluate the full range of practices that could relate to health and performance problems in the herd, including animal handling and other potential sources of stress. Late-spring storms, for example, are outside of producers’ control, but ranchers who routinely face weather-related stress and losses at calving might consider shifting to a later calving season.
Stokka says veterinarians can serve as key resources for ranchers, even though their visits to cow-calf operations often are limited to annual pregnancy tests or calls to address a health problem. Either of those visits, though, provides an opportunity for the veterinarian to help a manager evaluate animal-handling practices. Evaluating causes of a health problem could reveal underlying stress, and behavior of cattle and processing crews during preg checking provides a good indication of year-round stockmanship on the operation. Likewise for producers, any of the events in which crews handle cattle — branding, vaccinating, loading out — provide opportunities to observe behavior of cattle and people.
Ask yourself, honestly and objectively, where you are having difficulty with livestock, Hibbard suggests. For example, do you have an unacceptably high morbidity rate? Do you have trouble trailing cattle out? Is weaning a high-stress disaster? Does processing cattle take a lot of help with a lot of noise and hot-shot use? In short, any production event that cannot be done smoothly and easily with minimal help, and with willing and cooperative cattle is a problem area.
Assess your skills
Hibbard suggests producers critically evaluate their skill level in each of the relevant elements that comprise stockmanship, including low-stress livestock handling, natural horsemanship, ranch roping, dog handling and facilities design. Within low-stress livestock handling, which he considers the one indispensable and fundamental element, producers should evaluate their proficiency at the basic low-stress techniques and their proficiency at specific skills, such as properly approaching, starting, driving, stopping, settling and placing, sorting, fenceline weaning, receiving and de-stressing, using processing facilities and loading out.
Gill suggests asking yourself whether you would be willing to let outsiders watch what you do on the ranch. If not, you might want to re-think some practices. If you invited some of your urban relatives to visit and watch everything that goes on, would you be able to explain every activity to them? For example, an outsider might not understand why you use a squeeze chute. Once you explain its purpose — calming the animal and protecting the animal and workers from injury — they probably would feel fine about it. But if animals are subject to unnecessary stress before they reach the squeeze chute, a good explanation could prove elusive, suggesting a need for change.
Once a problem is identified, Gill says instructional videos, manuals and hands-on training are available. It might not be necessary to bring in experts or engage in special training, but in many cases, some fairly simple self-directed fixes in human behavior or facilities could make a big difference.
Outside observers can provide beneficial advice though. Stokka suggests veterinarians can serve as objective outside resources to help ranchers evaluate their facilities and practices and work toward more positive interactions with their cattle. Often, he says, simple changes such as minimizing noise, learning how to properly apply and release pressure on cattle or modifying facilities can make big differences.
Some ranchers have had a little training in low-stress handling, Stokka adds, but become frustrated when it does not seem to work for them. In most cases there are some aspects they do not understand, possibly coupled with problems with facilities or cattle whose past experiences have led to flighty behavior. Additional evaluation and training could help producers get on track to fully implement low-stress methods.
Stokka also says veterinarians and ranchers can achieve a great deal of self satisfaction by learning how to handle cattle properly, treating them as living, conscious creatures. Sometimes these emotional aspects of cattle management are more difficult to grasp than the scientific ones, he says, but once someone understands and applies low-stress methods, one person can do the work of three less-skilled cattle handlers.
Gill believes there are opportunities for producers to use documentation of their handling practices to market their cattle or beef. Several organizations offer third-party audits related to animal welfare, including mainstream programs that also document age, source and health practices. He says if he were marketing beef through local channels, he would consider recording videos showing calm handling on the ranch to display at the point of sale.
Sidebar: Resources for improvement
A number of resources can help producers begin the process of implementing low-stress animal-handling methods.
• The national BQA program offers a free 75-minute DVD on cattle handling for cow-calf producers. Individual video segments from the DVD are available online at the BQA.org website.
• Self assessments for cow-calf, stocker and feedyard operators are available, also at BQA.org.
• NCBA offers a low-stress cattle-handling DVD, funded by Zoetis and the National Cattlemen’s Foundation. The DVD includes sections on handling cattle on horseback, on foot and with dogs. Find it online at beefusa. org/lowstresscattlehandlingdvd.aspx. Cost is $15.
• Bud Williams is widely acknowledged as the founder and foremost expert on low-stress livestock handling. Williams unfortunately passed away in November 2012, but his wife Eunice continues to maintain his Stockmanship.com website, which offers videos and other useful resources.
• Low Stress Cattle Handling: An Overlooked Dimension of Management, a DVD available from Cattlexpressions.com.
• Stockmanship Journal, at stockmanshipjournal.com, offers in-depth information on low-stress animal handling and other aspects of stockmanship.
• Stockmanship and stewardship training is offered through the national BQA program and is available for hands on training for all phases of beef cattle production and marketing. Scheduling can be done through BQA. org or effectivestockmanship.com.
• Numerous videos are available through Texas A&M AgriLife Extension at ranchTV.org or on You Tube.