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Good Animal Handlers Have the Right Attitude

By   /  January 25, 2016  /  5 Comments

Have you noticed that we’re running this Low-Stress Livestock Handling series under “Money Matters?” That’s because we know that better animal handling saves time and money and makes animals more productive. It also improves the quality of life for us and everyone around us when we’re working your stock. We hope that by running this series through the winter, when the grazing season starts up again, we’ll be able to practice in pasture what we’ve learned in print.

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The originator of low-stress livestock handling (LSLH), Bud Williams, stressed the importance of five requisite elements or foundational layers of LSLH (see Figure below). In the last article we considered the first layer, mindset. In this article we will look at attitude, which Bud considered “more important than skill level.”

We're working our way up the pyramid of skills you need to become a good low-stress livestock handler. With mindset and attitude you're starting with a strong foundation.

We’re working our way up the pyramid of skills you need to become a good low-stress livestock handler. With mindset and attitude you’re starting with a strong foundation.

“Pre-Bud” I never thought about it—nor did anyone else I worked with—but just as with mindset, attitude is vitally important but generally undervalued and under-appreciated. Bud insisted that “low-stress livestock handling is more than just a technique of working livestock; it’s an attitude about working livestock.”

So, what does Bud mean by “attitude”? There are five essential attributes:

Positive

In order to do low-stress livestock handling, we first need a positive attitude; that is, we need to believe that it works and that we can do it. If we have a negative attitude and believe that it won’t work or we can’t do it, then, alas, that’s what will happen; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Bud, “Your attitude will create more problems than anything else, but if you have a good attitude you can solve almost any problem.”

Determination

Bud Williams working cattle from his Stockmanship.com website

Bud Williams working cattle from his Stockmanship.com website

To effectively work livestock, we have to do so with determination; that is, with resolve, purposefulness, and single-mindedness. As Ray Hunt, the master horseman, famously said about horses: “They know when you know and they know when you don’t know.” Bud would say the same about cattle. Therefore, it is important to convey to our animals that we know what we are doing, and we do that by projecting a strong sense of determination. “You have to go in with determination and no time frame and work with the animals, then it’s easy. Go out with the attitude that nothing can stop me from doing this.”

Confident

According to Bud, cattle want a confident person they can trust working them: “Now they have something that they can count on.” Don’t be concerned about doing it, just be confident that you can, and that will positively effect the outcome. “If you have a built-in excuse before you go to do something you have a built-in road to failure. You’ve already decided that you’ll probably fail, and you already have an excuse if you do fail, and so you quite often do.”

Decisive

Similarly, “Don’t be indecisive when you’re working animals because they pick up on it immediately. If you’re not sure of yourself, they’re not sure, and when they’re not sure, they can be darn difficult to get them to do what you want. Being tentative is a killer.”

Committed

If we want to succeed at LSLH, “We must decide that we’re going to do it, and we commit to doing it.” LSLH is not a quick fix. Rather, it is a lifetime study. Some stockmen just want a few new techniques to help them work their livestock better without fundamentally changing their attitude or what they do. However, to understand and do LSLH properly, conventional livestock handlers have to radically change their attitude and what they do, which takes a serious commitment. For those schooled in conventional livestock handling, the transition to LSLH requires a profound and often difficult attitudinal adjustment. Many experience resistance–as I did–which is natural enough given that they have to admit that much of what they know about livestock handling, and may have spent years practicing, is obsolete.

The Right Attitude Makes Cents

cashcow-e1433131582818Bud argues that animals are extremely sensitive to our attitude, which has serious ramifications for how they handle, their well-being, health and performance. Unfortunately, few stockmen recognize that our attitude, and subsequent actions, have consequences for our livestock. This contention is supported by scientific research which has shown that there is, in fact, a relationship between the attitude and consequent behavior of the stockman towards cows and the behavioral response back to the stockman, which affects production and performance (Breuer, et al., 2000).[1] For instance, it is now known that negative handler attitude that results in aversive handling can significantly decrease live weight gain, immune function, conception rates, and milk yield. In Bud’s personal experience, he found a direct correlation between the incidence of sickness in calves in feedyards and the attitude of the handler, and claimed that “at least 80% of the sickness is caused by the attitude of the people.” As a consequence, he said that it is important to be enthusiastic and upbeat when working them. In other words, “Smile and mean it.”

In summary, proper mindset (discussed in the last column) coupled with proper attitude are two essential prerequisites of LSLH. In their absence, everything else forthcoming in this column likely will be either misunderstood, misapplied, or ineffective.

What do you think?

Right about now, we’re guessing you have some ideas about how your attitude has affected your success handling stock, and maybe some suggestions too about what has worked for you or what didn’t work so well. Everybody in the On Pasture Community would love to hear your take. So feel free to add to the comments below.

Here are the other articles in this series:

Stockmanship: An Essential Component of Sustainability

The Case for Low-Stress Livestock Handling

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

[1] Breuer, K., Hemsworth, P.H., Barnett, J.L., Matthews, L.R., Coleman, G.J. (2000). Behavioural response to humans and the productivity of commercial dairy cows. Applied Animal Behavior Science,66, 273–288.

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About the author

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.

5 Comments

  1. Amy Wilkerson says:

    I grew up on a feed lot and married a hog farmer. We have raised pigs inside for nearly 20/years. We’ve got a little experience in moving and handling livestock (some not so cooperative at times). At 5’5″ 130# I’m not fighting with a 300# pig. I can however change his mind and reroute him to the truck. We also have 200 head of momma cows under roof. We’ve used the knowledge gained in animal handling and management (disease control, environment management, etc) into our cow operation and will agree that animal handling is very much mindset and attitude. Many of our cows originated from the pastures of SD and were a bit skidish upon arrival. Most calm down and don’t mind you r even in the pens. Even with babies on their sides they are pretty calm and will let u check their baby over without taking anyone. The ones that don’t calm down are rehomed as it tends to be contagious!

  2. S says:

    If you have help that likes drama and yelling at animals unnecessarily fences get broken. Having that same help fix the fence they caused animals to break gets them thinking about better low stress handling the next time.

    My grandmother at 89 was still quietly moving sheep into the shearing pen. 2 or 3 at a time they look for an exit in a small pen. More than that they put heads down in a corner and are hard to move.

  3. Sharon says:

    I have heard it said of horses and I have experienced it with cattle/goats/pigs “if they knew it, they’d do it”. If they aren’t “doing it” you aren’t explaining it. If you approach the situation with the knowledge that the HUMAN is responsible for presenting the REQUEST in an understandable way, success is almost guaranteed. If you are not successful, start over. Break the request down into smaller requests. Which leads us to the question, do you know what you want the animal to do? If you can’t explain it, why do you think you will be able to get the animal to comply.

  4. Paul Nehring says:

    Excellent article on an often overlooked aspect of low-stress livestock handling.

    I have to admit that I did not fully understand what Bud meant by attitude and belief when I first took attended his school years ago, and even after attending a school taught by Steve Cote. It’s not that I didn’t get at all, or was wrong, but as Bud might say, “I didn’t get it quite right.”

    That’s ok, because you won’t get it exactly right all the time. The most important thing is to understand that you have to observe how what you are doing is affecting your stock, and then adjust if they are not responding appropriately. Keep observing and adjusting until they respond appropriately. All along, though you have to have the confidence, and patience to trust that you will figure this out. Based on my experience, if you are not enjoying this process, though, you are just creating stress for your livestock. Learn to enjoy learning, and that means learning to enjoy doing, even when you are making mistakes. If you can learn to enjoy the somewhat painful process of learning, it goes so much better for you and your livestock, and probably your spouse and coworkers, as well.

    A growth mindset is critical component of stockmanship. Stockmanship is a lifelong approach to continual learning to improve our livestock handling skills.

  5. Jess Jackson says:

    Totally agree. We had a very inadequate corral by most standards but our livestock were so tame that we could get calves and momma cows separated and into trailers or turned out without some of the craziness that I’ve seen. A little bit of feed as a bribe goes a long way and tempers lost are long remembered.

    I also need to point out that large animals can still hurt us even accidentally. We had a bull that we put small children on to sit and ride along take the front fender off of our pickup after deer hunting one day. Was fine again after washing the vehicle though.

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