Livestock Handling Part 3: Low-stress livestock handling more behavioral than mechanical
November 21, 2016
Like anyone, ranchers are not immune to the thinking "If I just had better tools, this job would be easier."
Low-stress livestock clinician Whit Hibbard teaches that to improve stockmanship, those "better tools" need to be better skills – not necessarily better facilities. He instructs that the most effective livestock handling facilities are often the simplest, and cattle handlers need not invest in expensive processing systems to see good results.
"We want quick, mechanical fixes – something we can go down and buy at the feed store," says Hibbard. "We're looking for mechanical solutions to what are really behavioral and people problems – not knowing how to handle our animals properly. Good stockmen are hoodwinked into believing it is 90 percent facility, and 10 percent stockmanship.
"However, I've learned it's almost always possible to improve how we work animals through the system we have. The low stress philosophy is to ask the following questions: How can I work my animals better? How can I use my facility better? What small changes can I make that aren't going to cost too much?"
In addition to not only being unnecessary, Hibbard feels many of the pre-build systems create more problems than solutions to good stockmanship.
Duped by tubs?
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Since the introduction of "tub systems" in the early 1970s, the solid-sided, curved processing facilities have become commonplace as the elite system on almost all ranches, feedlots and cattle-working areas. Much of this is due to the following of livestock behaviorist Temple Grandin, and her teaching that solid sides eliminate distractions which scare cattle, and cattle won't be scared of what they don't see.
While Hibbard stresses he is not attempting to attack the perspectives of other livestock handlers, he does emphasize there is a need to share information on what he has experienced and learned, particularly from Bud Williams, regarding solid-sided facilities.
Dr. Lynn Locatelli, a feedlot veterinarian and also a student of Williams, writes in the Stockmanship Journal that handlers should adopt the attitude that distractions are not going to be a problem – after all, anticipating problems is often what creates them.
"I have learned that the good pen riders and processors at feedyards don't care about distractions or even where people stand," says Locatelli. "The attitude the handler has towards potential distractions makes all the difference."
Solid-sided facilities create a barrier between the cattle and the handlers, and in low-stress livestock handling, the goal is to maximize – not minimize – contact with the animals. Practitioners of low-stress livestock handling feel there is not strong evidence that cattle feel safer behind solid sided objects. Instead, being animals of prey, tend to panic when entrapped in a closed-in area. Additionally, if handlers need to push an animal that has stalled, their only option is to work from above the animal. "What could be more frightening than being in a confined space, not able to see the predator, and suddenly the predator appears over you?" Hibbard says.
Run but not hide
On the same note as solid sides, many handlers have the tendency to "hide" to eliminate the cattle from fearing them or stalling as they move past. Hibbard says this is the completely wrong approach.
"Handlers may think they're hiding from the cattle, but cattle know precisely where they are at," says Hibbard. "Cattle are incredibly sensitive, and know when and where people are present, even if 'hidden.'"
In fact, he says, they may fear hidden handlers more than those they can see because they can't interpret their body language or intentions. Hibbard gives the example of knowing there is a rattlesnake hidden somewhere in your living room but not being able to see it. "Wouldn't you feel safer if you could see the rattlesnake and know what it's doing?" he says.
"Cattle are more comfortable if they can clearly see the handler and read his or her body language and intentions, rather than trying to be sneaky and hide."
Hibbard advises that handlers should never hesitate to be in clear sight of an animal, but to be intentional with their movements, be in the right position, and use the principles of low-stress livestock handling to communicate to the animal where they want them to go.
Eunice Williams, the wife of the late Bud Williams, said her husband was at first embarrassed when people started calling the unique crowding pen he designed a "BudBox." However, his design has become one of the most recognized – and effective – facilities associated with low-stress livestock handling.
The BudBox is a simple design where animals enter a rectangular pen, reverse their position, and then naturally flow back around a handler and out a side exit or exits perpendicular to where they entered (see diagram). The concept is based on three animal behavior principles: 1) Animals want to go back where they came from; 2) Animals want to see what's pressuring them; 3) Animals want to go around you. "For the most part, you can just stand there and let the principles work for you," says Hibbard.
Justin Dixon is the foreman of Trail Creek Land and Livestock, part of the Deseret Ranches, located in southeastern Montana. Dixon says he was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a Bud Williams school and strives to implement low-stress livestock handling in all his work. When he moved to the Trail Creek place in 2012, one of the first things he did was remove the crowding tubs and install BudBoxes.
"We've always just been impressed with their safety and efficiency," says Dixon. He prefers to work the box horseback, which follows the same principles as on foot. Dixon says he and his crew have found the low-stress principles to be accurate and beneficial to their operation. "When you implement those [low stress handling] principles, the cattle just really behave better – there's no rammin' and jammin,'" he says.
Dixon notes in addition to creating a more pleasant working experience for the livestock and handlers both, the low-stress mentality is more economical. They run 4,000 cows and 1,200 yearlings at Trail Creek – and do all the work with just four men, along with regular help from their wives. He says they can smoothly preg check 700 a day, and nothing seems rushed or hurried. "It really makes our business model a lot more feasible," he says. "Whit is right that you can do a lot more with less people with these methods."
Rebuild or rethink?
As Hibbard stresses, the important part of evaluating a facility set-up is determining what you can make work better using animal handling principles. He says most corral systems and processing areas can be converted to a BudBox without major redesigning. As another example, Hibbard says he's not a fan of V-shaped crowding alleys, but you can rethink their use and work them in reverse, encouraging cattle to move past you, as opposed to forcing and pushing them to the chute. No matter the facility, one of the most important components of success, Hibbard says, is to handle your cattle properly from the very start of the process. "It starts with the gather – make sure cattle are handled well throughout every stage of the process," Hibbard says. He adds that normally the best livestock handlers tend to be running the chute, with the less experienced help doing the "pushing." Contrarily, Hibbard advocates putting the best stockmen or women in the back, to be the first to initiate the interaction with the cattle.
No matter the cattle, the handler, or the facilities, Hibbard emphasizes that low-stress livestock handling is a lifelong process – you may never fully master it, but will be rewarded each step of the way.
It's a win:win:win," says Hibbard. "The people win because their jobs are easier, more interesting, rewarding, even fun. The animals win because they are handled better, and they are healthier and happier. The operation wins because it runs more efficiently, effectively, and profitably."
This article is the third in a series on low-stress livestock handling.