Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Low Stress Cattle Handling, Hype or Fact?

Like most of us, I am confused by the way the beef industry is trying to get the cattle industry to use low stress cattle handling methods. If my own first hand experience had not already taught me better, I would think that low stress stockmanship is just a worthless bottle of snake oil. We must remember that this isn't about forcing cattle to go where we want, but acting in a manner which makes cattle think it is their idea.
Twenty years ago, when I first saw an ad for a cattle handling seminar I laughed. At the time I was working under a manager who was a big fan of Bud Williams, and shortly after the ad came out, this man and the cowboss went to Bud's seminar. To me, this pair was pretty confused to begin with, but when they came back, they seemed to be worse off than before attending the seminar. It was fairly obvious that this so called low stress cattle handling was just a bunch of snake oil...Or was it? The following spring I was informed that I was going to be attending a seminar with one of the other hands. Was I irritated at having to go waste time attending? Yes. Was it a waste of time? Most definitely not!

To me, nearly all of what Bud Williams was teaching was very obvious, as I was already doing it. However to most of the people attending, it was hard to understand. Perhaps the most confusing thing for people to understand was putting cattle through a gate by working the gate on a “T” with the person in front putting the cattle through the gate and the people in the back doing no more than necessary to keep the cattle in the back, facing to the front. This concept is simple, and Bud shows video of doing this in several different situations, yet people kept asking questions of how to do it for over half an hour. By this point the realization set in that Bud knows what he is doing, but people have a hard time grasping the principles because they go against human nature. I was struck by the realization that there is such a thing as low stress cattle handling, but many, if not most people have a difficult time understanding it because so much of it goes against human nature.

Today, low stress cattle handling is sort of a buzzword at least with the main stream agriculture publications, and the NCBA. Unfortunately nearly every article is nearly a copy of the others. They have little real information, and virtually nothing new. Watching some of the videos produced will convince a person that low stress cattle handling is all hype and will not work in real life situations.
This is especially true when people giving demonstrations talk about “training a cow to drive.” You do not train a cow to drive. Where the cow goes is totally dependent upon what you are doing and how you are doing it. 99% of the time a cow runs across the pen it is because you lost position or put too much pressure on the cow. What is seldom (if ever) mentioned is when you see that cow thinking about making that move, moving away from the cow rather then putting pressure on it will straighten the cow's direction.

When watching demonstrations on low stress cattle handling, the movements are so subtle that spectators may miss the slight drop of a shoulder or turn of the body that takes the pressure ff a cow and changes her mind. More often than not, the person demonstrating does not mention that to the audience, so that the finer points of what one needs to do, and when are lost to the observers. The same thing holds true for handling cattle horseback. At times, simply changing the angle of your horse to the cow will calm the cow down and get the results you want without speeding up. Unfortunately, most of us have been taught to keep our horses parallel to the cow at all times.

This may work well in arena events where you are judged (and given “courage points”) for chousing cattle around the arena, but it is the last thing one wants to do when trying to keep your cattle calm and things flowing. There are times when simply moving one end of your horse, one step, will calm the animal you are working and allow it to turn without losing momentum. In the branding pen, that one step may give you a clear shot to rope a calf without it bounding through the rest of the calves and stirring them up. 
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