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Low-Stress Livestock Handling – It’s All In Your Head

In my first two articles,(Stockmanship: An Essential Component of Sustainability  and The Case for Low-Stress Livestock Handling) I introduced and made the case for low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as an essential component of operating sustainable livestock operations. In this article I will give you the foundation for to support LSLH principles, techniques, and practical applications.

Bud Williams, the originator of LSLH, stressed the importance of five requisite elements or foundational layers of LSLH (see Figure below) before talking about principles, techniques, and practical applications. The first layer, the one upon which the other four rest, is all in your head. It’s your mindset.

Pyramid of LSLH Principles

Pre-Bud I never thought about it, and nobody I worked with did either. But proper mindset is vitally important to good stock handling. So what does Bud mean by “mindset”?

First, Bud insists on having “a learning mindset”; that is, we have to be:

(a) willing to learn how to work cattle better, and
(b) to keep asking why?

WhatDoCowsThinkFor instance, why are my cattle behaving the way they are? Why aren’t they doing what I want? According to Bud, “Knowing why we do something is more important than knowing how to do it or what to do.” If we understand the why, we can usually figure out the how and what. Unfortunately, many stockmen don’t ask why. Instead, they simply do what they’ve always done on the rationale that “We’ve always done it this way,” a common phrase heard in the industry, and are resistant to learning a different and better way.

Second, we have to take responsibility for everything that happens with our cows. We are 100% responsible for how they behave. Instead of getting upset and coming up with excuses or blaming the animals, which is what some folks do, we need to assume responsibility for what happens so we can learn what we should have done and what we can do better the next time.

Third, we need a desire to work our cattle properly, and not just getting the job done. As Bud emphasized, “Focus on learning how to work animals properly. The goal should be to get a good job done right. Don’t set a goal, set a standard.” If we work our animals properly the job will get done, and done easier and quicker. Post-Bud I have experienced this over and over and it’s made my life and that of my cows a whole lot better.

Additionally, when we talk about mindset we’re talking about how we think about our livestock. This is important to understand because what we believe about them determines our subsequent behavior. So, lets look at a few conventional beliefs and subsequent behaviors and contrast that with low-stress beliefs and behaviors.

Conventional beliefs

  1. Cows are dumb, brutes, uncooperative, unwilling animals.
  2. We work with cattle physically.
  3. Cattle are difficult to work.

As a consequence of these beliefs, we tend to (a) make animals do what we want with the aid of fear, force, coercion, and mechanical aides (e.g., prods and hot shots), (b) seek mechanical solutions (e.g., tub systems) to behavioral problems, and (c) use as much help (e.g., riders, noise) as we can muster.

Low-stress beliefs

  1. Cows are smart, sensitive, cooperative, and willing.
  2. We work with cattle mentally.
  3. Cattle are easy to work.

As a consequence of these beliefs, we tend to (a) communicate effectively with our animals through the application of proper technique which renders fear, force, coercion and mechanical aides unnecessary, (b) make our idea the animal’s idea and seek behavioral solutions, not mechanical solutions, and (c) use minimal help (e.g., fewer people, no noise).

ThinkingCowThe main point here is that if we are to transition from conventional to low-stress livestock handling, we need to examine our beliefs about our cattle and how those beliefs determine our behavior. Then, if we want to change our behavior, we need to go about changing our beliefs.

In working livestock, our mindset can either help us or hinder us. With a conventional mindset, working cattle can be very difficult and exasperating for both humans and animals. With a low-stress mindset, working cattle can and should be easy, rewarding, even fun, and our animals will certainly appreciate it and reward us with improved manageability, health and performance.

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Whit Hibbard
Whit Hibbard
Whit is a fourth generation Montana rancher who spent aobut 38 years handling cattle conventionally before making the paradigm shift to low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as taught by Bud Williams. For the past 10 years he has studied and practice LSLH, and shares his knowledge in clinics, onsite consultations, and articles. He began publishing the Stockmanship Journal in 2012. It is the definitive source for quality information on stockmanship. Though the importance of stockmanship is becoming well recognized, until this Journal, there was no professional publication addressing the subject. Hibbard began publishing the Journal in January of 2012 to provide a consistent and efficient way to share information on stockmanship, and to serve as a forum for open, intelligent and informed dialogue. The Journal is a means for improving the level of discourse and the discipline of stockmanship. It is published twice a year in electronic form and includes articles written by experts in the field.

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