In this example of starting a rider has zigzagged behind a group of cows and their several month old calves a few times within their pressure zone to initiate good movement. Notice his straight, forward-angled line that applies effective pressure into the animals’ sides and drives them ahead.
In this example of starting a rider has zigzagged behind a group of cows and their several month old calves a few times within their pressure zone to initiate good movement. Notice his straight, forward-angled line that applies effective pressure into the animals’ sides and drives them ahead.

Driving—the active process of initiating and maintaining movement in livestock—entails two vitally important, but generally under-appreciated and overlooked prerequisites: “approaching” and “starting.” In my August 2016 article, I talked about approaching. In this column I will talk about starting.

Conventionally, how do people start cattle? They go right at them. They yell. They sic their dogs on them. They race around. They poke at one, then follow it for a few steps or give it an extra shove for good mea-sure. Then they go do the same with another cow but the first one stops, so they have to go back and shove on her again. They do all these things—just like I did for 38 years—without realizing there are negative consequences, like making our animals hard to drive, dull and uncooperative.

Why do people start their animals that way? At least in my own case—and every-one else in our neck of the woods—I didn’t know there was any other way. The com-mon belief was we needed to use fear and force to make our cattle go someplace they didn’t want to go.

But does that get the all-important mind change we’re striving for in low-stress live-stock handling (LSLH)? Does it create “good movement,” which is when cattle are willingly going where we want and at a pace that is comfortable for them? Or, are we merely coercing them into doing something they are either not ready to do or don’t want to do—and thereby creating “bad movement,” which is when the animals simply want to get away from us?

In LSLH we must remember we are working with our animals’ minds, not just their bodies. Think how much easier it would be to drive our cattle if we could make our idea their idea so they willingly go where we want. To do so we need to approach cattle properly—with a straight-lined oblique angle until we intersect their pressure zone—then start our animals properly. Legendary animal scientist and originator of the LSLH method, Bud Williams once said, “The one thing that I absolutely do is start animals properly if I expect to get a good result. If you take an hour to start them properly it’ll save you hours later. How you start animals deter-mines 99% of the outcomes.”

There are several critical steps to properly start animals:

1. Zigzag within animals’ pressure zone to apply enough pressure to stimulate movement, but give them time to decide to move away from the pressure; that way it’s their idea so they are content. If we force them off we’re likely to create bad movement that will make driving difficult.  

2. Don’t start them too fast. “Most people start cattle too fast and they get too much movement to start,” Williams said. 

3. Once the animals do move, we should either let them take a few steps before following, or move on to pressure another animal(s), so they experience the all-important release of pressure. What most people do is pressure an animal to move and then follow it—which is a forward-parallel movement that tends to slow or stop movement—or they give the animal an extra shove for “good measure,” which actually punishes it for doing the right thing.  If we start animals properly we’ve made our idea, which is to move, their idea, so things should go smoothly.

If we start them improperly and get them upset, they will be hard to drive because their minds will be on resisting our pressure and going back to where they were last comfortable.

Starting cows and calves, especially first-calf heifers and young calves, deserves special attention. ­This might be the biggest livestock handling problem experienced by cow-calf producers. We’ve all had the experience of runbacks.

“When you have trouble with cows and calves it’s almost always due to how you start them,” Williams said.

But if we start them properly, cows will take their calves and trail out unless we do something to split them up. ­The biggest mistake people make is applying too much pressure so the cow’s mind is on the person and not her calf, and because she’s generally more sensitive to pressure than her calf, she’s likely to take off without it.

So, in addition to the critical steps listed before, add these to the list:

1. If cows and calves are not already together, get them mothered-up first before starting them. Do that by disturbing them just enough to get the cows and calves looking for each other. A cardinal rule is to not start anything that is unmothered.

2. Once they are mothered-up it’s especially important not to start them too soon or fast, trying to get too much movement. According to Bud, “If we get in too big a hurry to get them started, we’ll end up  fighting them all the way. If we hurry it will be slow due to problems we create.”

3. Start them by slowly zigzagging in so the cow has time to collect herself, take her calf and start going. Don’t force them to move off; rather, apply just enough pressure so she feels uncomfortable enough to want to move off. Because she’s made the mental decision to go, she’s happy; we haven’t forced her to go.

4. Stock are less stressed and more comfortable if they have more than one direction to go when pressured, so let them decide which direction to go (which isn’t to say you can’t make one direction more “open” than another). A basic rule is good movement before direction.

It’s important to realize it doesn’t take any longer to start cattle properly than it does to start them improperly and it will save a lot of time in the long run. Also, this whole process can be considerably abbreviated as the cows and calves get older and more experienced.


Whit Hibbard is a fourth- generation Montana rancher and the editor of Stockmanship Journal

Note: This story appears in the November/December issue of Drovers.