A cowboy rides his horse out onto the pasture, moving the cattle at a slow, steady pace. They stay together without fear or stress, and move into the corrals to be sorted. Effective stockmanship is not about hollering or chasing cattle; it’s about getting the job done while treating the cattle correctly.
“For stockmanship to be good, it has to be effective for what we are doing. Cattle handle differently with different people. The most effective people do the least, but they do it at the right time,” said Curt Pate, NCBA stewardship and stockmanship program cattle handler.
Pate, a native of Montana, now travels across the United States doing demonstrations and clinics on horsemanship and stockmanship. He recently gave a clinic at the Frasier Ranch in Last Chance, Colo., where he talked with local cattlemen about ways to handle their cattle.
“People have always thought about training horses, but nobody really teaches how to train cattle,” he said.
He explains that cattle have two sides to their brains, and it’s important that the cattle are in the right mode to work calmly.
“Cattle have two sides to their brain; the thinking or growth side, and the survival or reaction side. They are either in the growth or survival mode. We need to keep them in thinking mode. We need to learn what it is that keeps the animal to the thinking side and not the reaction side,” Pate said.
He continued, “We can’t think of ourselves as a predator. We need to take the cow out of the survival side and back to the thinking side. You need to look for signs of when to back off. The only thing we can work with is pressure. Cattle and horses react to pressure.”
The pressure he talks about is what motivates the animals to move or behave in a certain way. The pressure is applied in two ways, through the balance point and through the flight zone.
“The flight zone is really just a pressure zone. You need to be aware of what an animal is doing to know where that pressure zone is. The pressure zone is always changing, and if you don’t watch your animals and you get into their pressure zone, it will increase it. The way to shrink the pressure zone is to get them to trust us,” he said.
The balance point refers to where the pressure is applied to the cow. In general, the balance point is at the shoulder, but it can change. “The focus point is on the shoulder, because that’s where they can see you. You need to always be able to see the cow’s eye,” Pate said.
This is because cows react with their vision, and if they can’t see you, they will move in a way that they can. “The best form of communication is vision. At some point touch may take over, but vision is best for the cow,” said Pate.
He continued, “Humans have what I call rifle vision. They can see a pinpoint out in front of them and focus on it. Cows have shotgun vision. She may not see details, but she can see movement. They get depth perception when they use both eyes.”
The way that cattle see things affect the way they react, and cattlemen need to be aware of this. “When you are on foot, they can’t see you as well. They want to change their position so they can see you. They don’t like when you are behind them, so they turn to have you in front,” he said.
He added, “Try to work the cow’s nose – you will be ahead. If you try to work the whole body, you are behind or late. Where his nose is pointed is where he will go.”
Working cattle this way helps the cattle to stay calmer and less stressed, which leads to better production and ultimately better profitability.
“We need to look at them not just as beef, but as an animal to be trained. If we look at cattle training like we do horse training, the cow/calf man is the colt starter. The training starts there,” Pate explained.
He suggests working cattle through a chute before you give them vaccinations or anything that will stress them, to get them used to the process. That way when it is time to process the cattle through a chute, they know what to do.
“Work the cattle through the chute a few times without giving them anything. It will give them exercise, and get them used to the process. It makes both the cattle and the handlers better,” he said.
Pate also talked about sorting cattle, whether it be on foot or on horseback. “In an ally if you are sorting, they need room to go by you. If they don’t have room, they will bunch up and start stepping on each other. This puts them into panic mode. Don’t create panic, because they will just go over you. This creates a safety issue,” Pate said.
Staying safe is of utmost importance, and if cattle are trained from a young age how to be worked, they will stay calmer, which helps with the safety of everyone involved.
“When you are working, don’t think. You don’t have time to think, just react. If you make a mistake, step back. Try to keep everyone pointed the same direction. If they are trained, they are easy to sort and it’s safer for everyone,” he said.
If working from the ground, Pate stressed the importance of confidence, especially in small areas. “Cattle can tell by the way you step if you have confidence, and cattle pick up on that,” he said.
One area where moving cattle can be critical is when they are loaded into a trailer. Many times this is a tight space for both the cattle and the cattleman, so stockmanship is especially important here.
Pate suggests using a Bud box, which is a box designed by low-stress livestock handler Bud Williams. The box allows cattle to go past the opening to the chute that goes to the trailer, and go towards the back of the box. When they turn around, and go past the handler, they go into the chute and into the trailer.
He reminds people to not overload their trailers, as this stresses the cattle. He also suggests putting cattle in compartments, so there are not as many cattle in one area in the trailer.
Pate talked about how learning effective stockmanship can take time, but that cattlemen need to work on it every day. “With whatever you are doing, cut it in half and get good at that. For example, if you are doing things loudly, try to be half as loud. Then once you master that, cut it in half again. This makes it easier for you to learn,” Pate said.
He also suggests producers videotape themselves working cattle, so that they can see from an outside perspective what they are doing. “Have someone videotape you working cattle and then review it. You might find out you were doing things you didn’t even know you were doing,” he said.
Even when cattlemen use effective stockmanship, they need to keep in mind the perception that people have of them. “We have a tradition to keep up with being on horseback. We have to make sure that our tradition does not get in the way, however. We need to do the right thing for our cattle,” Pate stated.
He added, “The public needs to know that we really like animals. We need to be careful of our conduct, and we can’t do things to upset people. You need to always be ready to talk about how you like animals and how you care for them. We need to be more aware of how we are in public, and the perception that people have of us,” he said.
Pate believes that effective stockmanship will help to increase positive public perception, as well as increase productivity and profitability for an operation. He also believes that it helps everyone involved.
He said, “When everything is going right, the day goes by fast. I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to be good. It’s such a pleasure when things go right.”