Editors Note: Over the coming weeks we will be sharing excerpts from Stockmanship Journal’s article “Grandin’s Approach to Facilities and Animal Handling: An Analysis” (Volume 3 Issue 1). The authors, Whit Hibbard and Dr. Lynn Locatelli, are both practitioners and teachers of the Bud Williams school of stockmanship and are well known for helping feedlots and ranches improve their operations through Low-Stress Livestock Handling education. In this article they look at the handling facilities designed by Temple Grandin, and compare it to their experiences with good stockmanship and animal behavior. Each section begins with a summation of Grandin’s position followed with the analysis. The final article in this series will be a response from Temple Grandin.
The purpose of the authors’ analysis is to encourage an exchange of ideas while analyzing, evaluating and critiquing theories and ideas in a search for better outcomes for animal handlers. They want to help answer the questions they’ve often been asked: “What kind of animal handling facilities should we build? Solid-sided, curved, tub systems, like those promoted by Temple Grandin can be expensive, but is that our best option? Or are there are other ways to get us where we want to be?”
This is groundbreaking analysis and On Pasture is honored to be selected to share it as excerpts. If you’d like to cut to the chase and read the entire article, here is the link. Otherwise, we’ll see you here weekly for an analysis of handling techniques and facilities.
The last issue of the Journal (Volume 2, Issue 2) was devoted to presenting, in a condensed form, the work of a very influential voice in the livestock industry, Temple Grandin, Ph.D. Dr. Grandin is the only person within the industry to voice concern regarding the welfare of cattle, then provide concrete recommendations despite sometimes monumental resistance. She is a role model for standing up for what she believes in, taking action, and dealing with the twin walls of resistance and tradition.
Due to Grandin’s work, solid-sided, curved processing facilities (i.e., alleys, crowd pens and snakes—colloquially referred to as “tub” systems—that evolved independently in Australia, New Zealand and the United States in the early 1970s)  are very popular and used widely. Grandin claims that over half of the feedyards and abattoirs in the United States use facilities designed by her. Secondarily, she stresses the importance of proper animal handling in those facilities, without which no system will work well. To this we agree.
This article should not be interpreted as “negative” or as an “attack” on Dr. Grandin. Our sole intent is to logically and objectively analyze the premises behind, the design features of, and the application of solid-sided, curved, processing systems and the handling of animals in those systems. Why, you might ask? Why not just let the advocates of the various animal handling systems go their own way and promote their own stuff? The answer is: Because there is a cost.
First, there is an intellectual cost in the sense of believing and propagating ideas that may not be true. Second, there is an economic cost involved in buying or constructing expensive processing facilities that may be unnecessary. As a prelude to what follows, we have found that many producers believe they need a solid-sided, curved processing system to effectively work their cattle and often go to great expense to install one, but that this belief is unfounded, the burdensome cost unnecessary in most applications, and there is a cost-effective alternative.
One purpose of a professional journal is to examine the claims made by those in the discipline. If they are right, they need to be acknowledged; if not, they need to be challenged, and those challenges must be based on more than opinion alone. We want the reader to understand that we are not merely “sniping from the sidelines.” The following analysis is based on firsthand experience, observation, photographic and video evidence, and work with livestock and their handlers in numerous facilities.
The Effect of Distractions on Animals
One of the main problems that Grandin finds with existing systems is distractions. Early in her career, she made an effort to determine why cattle don’t flow smoothly through some facilities; that is, why cattle would often slow down, balk, even turn around, to which handlers generally responded with rough handling and excessive electric prod use.
In so doing, she discovered that distractions, often seemingly minor and overlooked by others, made the cattle balk, and that their removal usually remedied the problem.  Most humans won’t even notice the distractions, but Grandin stresses that animals notice everything and every detail is equally bad and equally important. Therefore, they all have to be acknowledged and taken care of.
Consequently, “the first step in fixing an existing facility is to remove distractions.”  Whatever the distractions, Grandin asserts, they all need to be identified and removed if we expect livestock to flow smoothly through a processing system.
We agree that anything that we can do to facilitate good movement of livestock through processing facilities should be employed to benefit, including making them free of unnecessary distractions. We understand and concede that distractions can be a concern to cattle and cause them to balk under certain circumstances, such as animals that have been mishandled, or animals being off-loaded into a novel environment, especially if they are genetically flighty. Grandin has correctly identified this as a problem and persistently brought this issue to the attention of the livestock industry to its benefit. Based on a great deal of personal experience in abattoirs and feedyards, Grandin observed that the removal of distractions significantly facilitated cattle flow through systems. We have no problem with this. Removing distractions, especially in high throughput operations like abattoirs, is a prudent thing to do.
However, just as Grandin has hammered this message, we intend to hammer the message that that is a misplaced concern for any feedlot, stocker, rancher or farmer who is the least bit interested in stockmanship. We take the position that these operations should be working on improving their livestock handling abilities and searching for behavioral solutions to handling problems, not mechanical solutions. From that perspective—which was the perspective of Bud Williams—we consider distractions unimportant, at worst, and at best, opportunities to work on one’s stockmanship. So, as far as the authors are concerned about distractions, let ‘em be! Our purpose is to persuade those who are overly concerned about distractions that they need not be, because it’s not the distractions per se that are problematic, it’s how we perceive them and how we handle the animals.
From the perspective of LSLH, the real issue is not distractions that cause balking; rather, it is the mindset of the handler and a lack of proper animal handling that makes distractions an issue in the first place.
Let us explain. A primary purpose of LSLH is to communicate clearly to our livestock what we want or expect of them. This is done with good technique and projecting a strong, positive and confident presence, which results in establishing leadership and control over calm, cooperative and, ideally, emotionally fit cattle. “Emotional fitness” is a vitally important but under-appreciated and misunderstood concept of Williams’. He believed that it is essential to establish a rapport and mutual trust between handler and animal which enables the animal to remain in a normal frame of mind and to withstand the obstacles and demands of the human-controlled world that they must live in. In other words, being “emotionally fit.” Emotionally fit cattle will more willingly work for their handler, including moving through confined spaces and not being troubled by distractions. Contemporary production events that cattle experience are scary and stressful (e.g., processing). However, if we focus on being leaders who use effective, proper animal handling techniques, cattle can withstand stress and adversity.
How do we as handlers make cattle emotionally fit? We do so by:
- (a) communicating with the animals in terms that they understand (i.e., obeying the principles and using the straight line techniques outlined in Volume 1 of this Journal.
- (b) being calm, confident leaders from whom the animals willingly accept guidance (i.e., handlers know what they want the animals to do, they know how to tell the animals, they reward positive responses by releasing pressure, and they do not yell, hot shot unnecessarily, or send conflicting messages to cattle);
- (c) “reading” the animals and providing what they need (e.g., applying more pressure in order for them to understand the command, less pressure in order to accommodate the sensitivity of the animals but still get the job done); and
- d) accepting the circumstances and environment in which we have to work with equanimity (e.g., if there are distractions, we as leaders accept that and don’t worry about it and work the animals despite them).
Granted, in high throughput situations (e.g., abattoirs, sale barns, feedlot “fall runs”), handlers often don’t have the opportunity to establish rapport with the cattle, but they can still employ proper handling technique to facilitate cattle movement through any design. Just because high throughput is expected does not mean that handlers have the right to default to chaos, poor technique or excuses. Handlers should remain calm, focused, organized, and always employ proper technique.
In our experience, cattle will sail right past distractions if a handler:
- (a) has made the animals emotionally fit (which understandably is not always possible due to circumstance, but still should not be an excuse for failure)
- (b) clearly communicates what is expected and has established leadership and control,
- (c) projects presence and applies effective pressure,
- (d) has good movement, and
- (e) is unconcerned about distractions.
When even a few of these elements are present, distractions tend to evaporate.
What usually happens when people process cattle is that they mishandle them. People tend to work “the way they work” out of habit or routine, and don’t respond to the needs of the individual animals. For example, sensitive cattle are often over-pressured which can result in panic, while desensitized cattle are under-pressured which results in not enough movement to flow through the facility. Sensitive, knowledgeable handlers will prepare cattle to go through a facility. For instance, if any cattle exhibit panic movement, the handler will quickly dissipate it before sending them through the facility. If other cattle need more movement to prevent stalling out, the handler will generate that movement.
With improper handling, cattle are not in a healthy state of mind which often escalates to panic. When cattle panic, anything new or different is a “red flag” and to be feared, which Grandin acknowledges. When people are jumping onto cat walks, leaning over the snake and moving flappers in and out, when cattle are being hot shotted routinely, when handlers are yelling and waving paddles and flags around, it must be frightening to cattle, which makes them reactive to anything unfamiliar (e.g., all the common distractions Grandin lists). If cattle are properly handled, however, and understand that their handlers will guide them, not hurt them, there is almost no balking at distractions.
To illustrate, here’s a short video of cattle walking calmly past what Grandin would consider two major league distractions without balking:
The attitude that handlers should take towards “distractions” is that they won’t be a problem. I (LL) have learned that the good pen riders and processors at feedyards don’t care about distractions or even where people stand. The attitude the handler has towards potential distractions makes all the difference. For example, in one feedyard there were a lot of plastic bag shreds in the alleyway leading up to the tub that had fallen off the end of stock whips. One excellent handler, Clint Hoss, calmly drove cattle right over the bag shreds and into the tub with no balking, whereas another handler picked up all the bags before his turn in the alleyway because in his mind they were going to be a problem, and they probably would have. As Williams says, “You cause what you anticipate.” When a third handler rotated into the position of moving cattle through the tub, he had extreme difficulty. There were no distractions present; he simply did not possess enough presence and good technique to move even small drafts of cattle straight to and then through the tub. Cattle would end up circling and running past him back to the holding pen. The importance of handler skill must be emphasized regardless of the design of the facilities or the potential distractions present in the system.
A good way to think about distractions is that they are merely something out of the ordinary that can engage an animal’s curiosity. It’s not uncommon to see cattle experience curiosity which might be misinterpreted as a distraction. For instance, I (LL) would consider any significant change in scenery a curiosity. It is true that cattle often slow down when they see something different, but I perceive it merely as a curiosity or a time to evaluate whether they need to be concerned about the object or change in scenery. We cannot make the world free of changes in scenery and distractions, but we can work to understand the animals. For instance, when cattle are being moved through an alley that transitions from open sided to solid, an astute handler should increase their energy by about “1 mph” to encourage the animals past the transition. Animals that aren’t panicked by the handler willingly do this, just as they will with most distractions. Animals on “red alert” and fearful of their handlers are much less likely to be cooperative, and much more likely react to transitions and distractions.
An Animal’s Experience Matters
It’s crucial to understand that the mental state of animals will have a huge impact on what causes them to balk. Panicked animals are likely to view everything as a threat and will be inclined to balk at anything unfamiliar. Also, animals’ behavior depends largely on prior experiences. If some had a prior bad experience with a distraction (e.g., being bonked on the head by a no-back) they may balk the next time they encounter a no-back even if they are in a calm frame of mind. Some distractions might involve guilt by association. Imagine the aforementioned cow getting bonked on the head. What if a loose chain was dangling from the no-back. That cow might subsequently balk at other dangling chains. Another example would be cattle that have been hot shotted into a squeeze chute balking the next time around. Some observers might erroneously conclude that the animal balked at the sight of the people standing beside the squeeze chute when it was the prior bad experience.
As noted, Grandin makes a big deal out of the little things, asserting that details are the key: “The single most important thing to remember is that animals are afraid of tiny details in their environment. 
Tiny details do matter—and handlers should strive to understand their meaning and not misinterpret them—but the degree to which they matter depends on handler attitude and skill. If handlers make a big deal out of a little deal it will make it a big deal. Not making a big deal out of a little deal and handling cattle properly creates good cattle flow and can render distractions insignificant.
To illustrate, in the following photos a herd of weaner heifer calves are being driven into the end of an alley leading into the corrals. It wasn’t until after the last calves had trailed into the alley that I (WH) noticed the flag. If one is to take Grandin literally, those calves would have balked at the flag and likely refused to enter the alley. However, the two handlers did not know the flag was there until we had the calves in the alley. Had we seen the flag and considered it a real distraction and believed that the calves would balk, we likely would have ramped up the pressure, gotten the calves out of a normal frame of mind, and otherwise caused what we anticipated. (Causing what we anticipate is an important insight and, as far as we know, original to Bud Williams.)
Check in next Tuesday for the 2nd installment of this article when Hibbard and Locatelli make the case for eliminating solid-sided handling facilities.
Solid sided systems really aren’t necessary except for certain situations such as processing facilities, where cattle from various backgrounds are run through quickly, often by relatively unskilled, untrained people.
Unfortunately, most rancher/cattle producers are not trained in low-stress stockmanship skills. Most don’t want know that they don’t know what they are doing.
I’m glad that I coughed up the money to attend a Bud Williams school, while he was still alive, and when he retired I arranged for Steve Cote to do a school, both of which have been an excellent investment. I wouldn’t want to raise cattle without the skills that I learned–and am still learning–at these schools.
At one time I was impressed with the Grandin design of pens. Then after learning the Williams method in 1990 I found that design, as said here, was not that important. There are exceptions to this with gathering and holding pens, and distance to the bud box. This leads to a question in the video. Why was the long alley not filled and cattle sorted into the short alley from it instead of all the running?
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