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.