Jeff Pribbeno has a saying: happy cattle equal happy people. Mr. Pribbeno, owner of the Wine Glass Ranch near Imperial, Neb., explains, "If the cattle are happy, they perform well; things go well; people make more money; everybody's happy."

How do you get happy cattle? One important factor is protecting them from stress-most, if not all, of the stress-related disorders afflicting domestic animals are caused by humans. The ethical arguments for handling cattle in a low-stress manner are reasonably obvious, and based on what Burt Smith, author of Moving 'Em: A Guide to Low Stress Animal Handling, calls "the contract," humans will take care of an animal's needs in exchange for food and fiber.

The economic arguments are less obvious, but starting to get more attention. "The whole point is how it fits into the larger scheme of things," Dr. Smith says. "How do we take a ranch-in a world where the price of everything is increasing except the price of food-and make it more productive?"

Lowering stress on cattle is indeed one way. Stressed and excited animals cause wear and tear on equipment, fences, cowboys and horses. They're much more likely to injure themselves or injure you. They may run wildly and lose their calves, so calves get stressed and gain less weight. Stress has been shown to affect productivity, health and even fertility.

Dr. Smith cites research that shows that long-term stress (lasting more than 24 hours) can result in dark cutters, and short-term stress in tough meat. Temple Grandin, assistant professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colo-rado State University, says that one truck coming from the same ranch at the same time with the same cattle as several other trucks, had 1.5 percent more shrink at arrival because of stress from the driver's rough handling and driving.

And low-stress handling costs nothing: there's no equipment to buy. "It's easy-easy on you, easy on the animal," says Dr. Smith. "It allows one person, or a couple people, to do what used to take a small army," which also weighs in the economic argument.

"What industry has forced us to do is make do with fewer employees," says Mike Ketter, manager of the Wine Glass Ranch. "We need to decrease the amount of labor required to do the job."

Changing attitude

It starts with the attitude of working with animals, instead of on them. "We've made the change in our thinking-most of this is mental," says Mr. Pribbeno. "It's an attitude about caring for cattle, acknowledging they have needs and responding to those needs,
instead of the factory-type approach, that the animal is just like a widget, or what-ever, that you're processing."

In cattle as in people, stress is additive and it dissipates slowly. Stress comes in many forms, but the most potent is psychological. If the animal perceives itself to be in danger, then it is in danger regardless of what you may think about it. "They perceive the world differently than we do," Dr. Smith says.

Their ears are far more sensitive than ours, for one thing. Research shows that they differentiate between noises such as gates shutting and noises made by humans; the latter cause far more stress, so low-stress handling involves no whistling or yelling. "Once in awhile a little ch-ch-ch," Dr. Grandin says, is all that's necessary.

Consistency of action from handlers is important as well as calmness and confidence. In a dairy herd, milk production dropped by 1 percent to 3 percent if the herdsman had a serious emotional problem at home, though he went through the same routine and tried not to show his personal distress. "An animal is very good at reading our intentions, better than we are at reading theirs," Dr. Smith says. It's the captor/captive principle: if you're the captive, you're just going to pay much more attention.

Cattle with excitable temperaments can get stressed even more easily than others, and they've been shown to have lower gains compared to cattle with calm temperaments. Excitable cattle also have tougher meat and higher
incidence of borderline dark cutters. "If we have a wild animal, she goes down the road," says Dan Hanson, a cow-calf and yearling operator near Lusk, Wyo. "We cull four to five head a year because of temperament."

Flight zone

Low-stress handling is based on simple stimulus-response relationships. "For most situations, the best strategy is for the animal to think of the herder as a benevolent predator, one that when pressuring them always allows them someplace to go," Dr. Smith says. The cattle handler simulates predator behavior by "stalking," and the cattle
responds with "avoidance."

Every animal is surrounded by a flight zone, and a herd of animals has a collective flight zone. There are two parts to a flight zone: the boundary and the area within. Working at the zone's boundary is the low-stress method. "If you're outside the flight zone, they'll turn and look," Dr. Grandin says. "Inside, they'll turn away and move. If you stay there, you'll get them running."

The area of the flight zone changes all the time, depending on many factors-if there is more than one herder or a high noise level, if the animal is alone, if the herder approaches the animal directly instead of diagonally-all will increase the size of the flight zone. It will decrease if the animal is in a group, on slippery or rough terrain, if the herder is approaching from downhill, and is moving slowly.

When they see the predator, which is you, it causes anxiety, and the cattle will naturally bunch together. This is only slight anxiety, which precedes fear and flight, elements that are never involved in low-stress handling. Loose bunching, the most critical step in moving a herd, according to Dr. Grandin, is done by applying light pressure to the edge of the collective flight zone and must be done before any attempt is made to move the herd. Locate the majority of the herd, she says, and make a series of wide back and forth movements on the edge of the herd, like a giant windshield wiper; don't circle the herd.

Move continuously, enough to each side so that the lead animal can see you. Don't chase stragglers; they'll be drawn out because they seek the safety of the herd, but only if you are moving very slowly. If the animals start to panic and run, these methods don't work. They'll need at least 30 minutes to calm down before the next effort is made. If they get excited coming into the corral, let them calm down before working them.

Slowing down, sometimes even stopping, is critical. "Waiting is one of the most potent tools a knowledgeable herder has in his toolbox," Dr. Smith says. "Their time is not our time. Never walk faster than they're walking. There's an old saying from the Texas trail days from a few good drovers: 'The fastest way to move cattle is slow.'"

On the ranch, that philosophy can be tough to sell. "We've got lots of work to do on a daily basis," Mr. Pribbeno says. "The mentality tends to be let's just get this job done. That gets us into trouble and makes us push cattle too hard. If you're patient, you can get more done in less time."

Pressure and release

Each animal has a point of balance at the shoulder. If the handler is behind it, the animal will move forward; if the handler is in front of it, the animal will back up. "We can use that instinct to help us move an animal much more easily," Dr. Grandin says. Groups of cattle in a chute often will move forward without prodding when the handler walks past the point of balance in the opposite direction. Moving in a herd, cattle speed up if you walk past the point of balance in the opposite direction just inside their flight zones.

To start movement in a herd, Dr. Grandin says, increase pressure on the collective flight zone, again in a zig zag pattern. Backing off when the herd is going in the right direction uses the concept of pressure and release and has two effects: rewarding an animal for doing what you want and preventing it from starting to run to escape the pressure. It's the same idea used in breaking a steer or a horse to lead. If you're pulling on the halter and the animal takes even a tiny step forward, you release the pressure. "You've got to get the timing just right or he won't make the association," Dr. Grandin says.

Every time you work your animals you are training them, either to be easy to handle or difficult. "They learn," Dr. Grandin says. "They aren't just robots that use only instinct. Teach cattle that you control their movements." For example, make them leave a corral in an orderly manner rather than charging out, otherwise they learn it's a place to escape from.

If they haven't gotten inordinately stressed in the corral, that will help. "We have no trouble getting them in and out of the corral," says Mr. Hanson. "They won't remember the shots; they remember the crowding and the hotshots-which ought to be thrown in a draw-or having a dog bite them while they're in the chute. They're going to be hard to get in next time."

Much of this is common sense, Mr. Pribbeno says, but it's not universally practiced. "Livestock can make people angry because they won't do what you want to do," he says. "You get frustrated-that leads to stressing the cattle." That's when one of Dr. Smith's universal laws of herding applies, which reminds handlers: it is never the animal's fault.

There's much more to low-stress herding and stockmanship beyond the common sense aspects. There are specialized techniques for moving a herd, methods of training and aspects of social structure. For example, in a tightly bunched group, the dominant animals (different from the leaders) are typically in the center, because they don't lead, they push. The timid animals at the back will be reluctant to start moving before the dominants. The timid members stay at the back once the herd is moving. If too much pressure is applied from the back, they'll quit the bunch rather than be pushed up into the dominant animals.

Mr. Hanson has been making an effort to learn to use social structure concepts, specifically, the role of the matriarch, in working his herd. "They depend on her to go out and check out something strange," he explains. "It can help if you know who it is, you can kind of convince her everything's okay. I've been experimenting with that."

At the Wine Glass Ranch, they also are continuing their education in low-stress herding and starting some specific training. "We want to be thought of as leaders in what we do," Mr. Ketter says. "We feel like this is a coming thing and we need to be on the front end of it."