A win-win with stress-free cattle handling

CEW-MR-3-A win-win 1by Sally Colby

When Richard McConnell and Tina Williams work cattle, it’s almost eerily silent. There’s no shouting or arm-waving, and no one is in a hurry. Cattle just seem to fall into place, moving quietly and willingly to wherever they’re guided. Richard and Tina say that stress-free handing is a matter of understanding cattle — how and why they move the way they do — and taking the time to train them.

Training cattle for handling is likely at the bottom of the cattleman’s to-do list, but Richard and Tina insist that training time pays off with less stress for both animals and their handlers, and smoother, faster working time. Tina explains that her father, Bud Williams, had worked cattle all his life, and always paid close attention to cause and effect as he moved cows, calves and feeders. Through this, he figured out that there had to be a better way to handle cattle than through force. “He realized that by his movements, he could communicate to the animals something that he hadn’t understood before,” said Tina. “Once he started thinking about where he stepped and then where the cattle stepped, he got good at working cattle by himself.”

Realizing that others could benefit from what he had learned, Bud Williams started offering stockmanship classes in the mid-1970s. He tried to think of how to teach others what he had learned on his own so they wouldn’t have to start from scratch. “Things like walking in a straight lines, walking parallel with them, what slows cattle down, speeds them up,” said Tina. “There’s no formula — it’s mostly an understanding of how animals move in relation to a human being.”

Tina explains that the effective handler is always ready to respond based on how the animal is responding. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re driving buffalo or ducks or pigs,” she said. “That’s why a recipe won’t work. If you know how to move, how to back up and how to change your angle (in relation to the cattle), it works.”

Both Richard and Tina emphasize the fact that cattle handling involves both good and bad movement. “Most of our cattle handling today is through force and fear,” said Richard. “They’re scared, shocked, banged on with a stick, yelled at. We try to put cattle in a situation and force them to do what we want.” He says although that kind of handling might get the job done, problems such as illness due to stress often surface, and there’s always the risk of injury to animals or humans.

Richard says training time doesn’t have to be lengthy. “Bud always said that it only takes about 20 minutes at a time in a few visits and they’re all trained,” he said. “It takes me less time now to train than it used to. I never spend more than 20 minutes on one thing — I do the right thing until it works. It’s a minute investment for a huge dividend.” Richard says training is especially useful for cow-calf operations. “After you drive them off and on every few days, the calves are trained and easy to sort. They know you aren’t a threat.”

The point of training cattle to a specific type of handling is so that they will respond in a predictable manner each time. It’s important to note that training is different from taming — the goal is not to tame the cattle, but to teach them to accept gentle handling that makes sense to them.

First, the handler must become familiar with how cattle respond to movement. With a group of cattle in a pasture or paddock, the handler first allows the animals to adjust to his presence. After the cattle are settled, the handler begins to apply pressure to achieve movement from the cattle. Learning how to apply and reduce pressure is the key to successful training.

“People start to pressure, and keep pressuring,” said Richard, adding that the result is agitated cattle that are likely to flee. “When the cattle stop, the best thing to do is take two steps back. If cattle stop and you’re too close, their focus is on you. To take some of the focus off, back up. Backing up relieves the pressure and the cattle will look at what’s ahead — an open gate or the pasture.”

It’s important that stock handlers communicate what they want the animals to do in a manner that makes sense to the animal. “General requests get general responses,” said Richard. “If you don’t know what you want, cattle read that quickly. We have to let them know that we aren’t a threat, and are not going to shove or force them.”

The phrase ‘fast is slow and slow is fast’ equals long-term success. Remaining calm around cattle and working slowly might seem as if the task will go slowly, but when cattle become too excited, they tend to rush, scatter or react poorly. Richard says that it’s important to remember that in working with groups of cattle, the handler must figure out ‘where to be’ in relation to the cattle. “When we have cattle in the pen or in the pasture, we can position ourselves in relation to where we want the stock to go,” he said. “We can use those natural instincts to our benefit.”

Richard and Tina conduct their Hand ‘n Hand Livestock Solutions stockmanship school between four and eight times each year. Richard, a former ag teacher and FFA advisor, works for the Soil and Water Conservation Service in Missouri but will soon retire and have more time to devote to sharing stockmanship techniques.

“Bud always said ‘there’s no limit to better,’” said Richard. “When you think you’re getting good, you’d better back up and look again.”

For more information on Hand ‘n Hand Livestock Solutions, visit handnhandlivestocksolutions.com

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