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Are Distractions In Handling Pens the Real Reason Cattle Balk?

By   /  January 2, 2017  /  8 Comments

Whit Hibbard tests Temple Grandin’s theory that eliminating distractions like shadows and flapping tarps is critical to cattle moving smoothly through handling chutes. Here’s why he thinks the theory doesn’t hold up.

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Temple Grandin argues that one of the biggest impediments to cattle flowing smoothly through processing facilities is distractions which, she contends, cause balking. Consequently, she advocates their identification and removal.

Some common distractions, according to Grandin, include: clothing hung on the fence, vehicles nearby, shadows, high contrasts in lighting or color, reflections, plastic (or anything) flapping in the wind, unusual objects (e.g., a styrofoam cup on the ground), dangling chains, or people within view. Whatever the distractions, Grandin asserts, they all need to be identified and removed if we expect livestock to flow smoothly through a processing system.

I decided to test this hypothesis while processing cattle (weaner calves, yearling heifers, and aged cows) through our facility at Sieben Live Stock Co. near Cascade, Montana. To do so I intentionally placed the objects on the above list in the animals’ path to see what would happen and photo-document their reaction.

In the following photo we see cattle walking calmly down an alleyway to the processing area past a pair of chaps, a coat, and some gloves hung over the alley fence with no balking (although some did give it a wide berth).

cattle-walk-past-jacket-on-railing

To see if a vehicle nearby would cause the cattle to balk, I parked a truck outside our BudBox as shown in the following photo.

truck-parked-at-end-of-bud-box

As seen below, the cows entered the BudBox as if the truck weren’t there; i.e., it was of no concern to them.

cows-walk-past-truck-to-bud-box

In the following photo we see several items on the distractions list; i.e., shadows (the straight line shadows on the ground and one of a human), a high contrast, reflective surface (the BudBox gate) with a coat hanging over it. What else do we see? We see calves walking right past all these and into the entrance of the chute. I’m the shadow taking the photos and can attest that no calves in multiple drafts even took notice of the “distractions,” let alone balk.

cattle-dont-balk-at-shadows-or-coats

In these next two photos we see a handler bringing calves into the same BudBox carrying a bright blue paddle which he intentionally leans up against the entry to the chute at eye level with the calves. The calves walked right past it with no balking.

calves-not-bothered-by-blue-paddle

Similarly, these yearling heifers walked right past a jacket hung on a broom handle at the entrance of the chute without even slowing down.

calves-walk-past-jacket

To test whether calves would balk at a small object on the ground, as Grandin claims, I placed an empty vaccine box at the entrance to the chute. Multiple drafts of calves walked right over it, some even stepped on it, and only one calf stopped to sniff it.

calves-not-bothered-by-trash-on-the-ground

I also placed a bright blue tarp over the gate to the BudBox that was flapping in the wind to see if cattle would balk at it and subsequently refuse to go up the chute. Surprisingly, these aged cows paid it no notice.

calves-dont-care-about-blue-tarp

To test the claim that dangling chains cause balking, I hung one in the middle of the chute as seen below.

dangling-chain-in-chute

As seen in the following photo the calves took it in stride; they all walked right through it, pushing it aside.

calves-walk-through-chain

People within view is a major distraction and will cause cattle to balk, according to Grandin, but it needn’t be that way as illustrated below.

people-not-a-problem-at-bud-box

Conclusion

On the basis of this empirical test, my conclusion is that distractions are fancy, not fact, and that Grandin’s claim that “the first step in fixing an existing facility is to remove distractions” is not necessarily true.

As illustrated above, distractions are not the problem per se; rather, it’s how we handle our cattle. Looking for distractions as the cause of balking is looking for excuses for poor stockmanship. Consequently, I would argue that “the first step in fixing an existing facility” is to improve our stockmanship, not removing distractions.

The point of this short article is to illustrate that the presence of distractions need not be a concern if stockmen keep their cattle calm and handle them quietly using the principles and techniques of low-stress livestock handling as taught by Bud Williams. However, if stockmen handle their cattle conventionally, or their cattle are unusually wild or genetically temperamental or flighty, or suffered prior serious mishandling (like in a sale barn), then the presence of distractions could be problematic. The point, however, is that stockmen should look first to their stockmanship and not for an excuse like the presence of distractions for poor cattle flow in facilities. As Bud Williams said, “Forget all your excuses.” Why? Because how cattle work through a facility primarily boils down to one thing, stockmanship, and not the presence or absence of distractions.

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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.

8 Comments

  1. Like the article and agree with what’s there. However, I have tested the shadow thing – accidentally. Because I agree with what you’re saying I strung an electrical cord above an alley that cattle move through on the way to their scale. Our whole facility is round so I couldn’t see the reason, but I noted that day that the cattle seemed to balk for a moment before entering the Bud Box. Someone else closed the gate to the box while I returned for more cattle so I didn’t realize what was going on until I finally went up to the box to talk to the operator and unknowingly jumped a little at the snake in the alley! My horse jumped a little more than I did…. I have seen many instances of shadows having some impact at certain points.

    We handle a lot of outside cattle. I also believe that Whitt’s experience has a lot to do with the cattle he’s working being relaxed by a history of quiet handling. We find the first experiences with outside cattle to be “faster” than all the rest. The small things that we do to relax them, including the pens (thanks for the genesis of the idea Curt!), change their attitudes every step of the way until it’s a quiet deal and almost nothing sets them off.

    I’d like to ask a follow up question in the spirit of the quote in the article. I’ve run a lot of tubs and, as noted, we have Bud Boxes, technically three, in fact. I know it’s heretical to suggest, but I discovered that a tub system could work really well if I basically sat at the furthest point from the alley entrance, waved my flag a very little bit when an animal turned toward me and quit the second they turned back toward the alley, and left the tub gate as open as I could while still latching it. Same thing with loading the tub: take fewer animals than the tub could hold, let them settle in it for a second before even trying to latch the gate, and then move to my lazy spot to wave my flag – if needed. I’ve done that with tens of thousands of cattle.

    I don’t question Curt’s experience. I have tremendous respect for him. I also know we built an entire corral system that can process 1,000 head for less than the cost of just a big tub/alley so I appreciate the savings. I also wonder about the safety aspect of some Bud Boxes when you’re handing tough cattle. Ours allows us to manage them from outside the actual box if needed.

    Just a question. Would be interested in feedback. A picture of our corral system is on our website if anyone wants to critique it.

    • Every Bud Box should be set up with open sides (so the stock can see you when you work outside the box). The proper position to work from when outside the Box is right beside the opening to the alley which will bring the eyes of the stock toward the handler after they see that they can’t go forward any more and they also see they can’t go back the way they came (because that gate is now shut). Then they see the alley opening (which is near the way they came in, so helps with the instinct of wanting to go back the way they came) and they go into it and “around” the handler. We always recommend working outside the Box with any animals which either can’t take the pressure of you being inside the box with them or which might be dangerous.

    • Whit Hibbard says:

      In response to Chuck’s questions I’ll offer the following:

      Without a more detailed description, diagram, or photo, I’m a little confused by Chuck’s description of the process he uses to get cattle to work well through his tub. However, I think it’s great that he’s found a way to apparently work with his cattle mentally so they want to go up the chute. That’s the whole key to good livestock handling. Unfortunately, too many tub operators use them to force cattle physically through the system, which they can do with impunity with the crowd gate or poking and hot shotting them from the catwalk.

      Grandin says that tubs should be used as “pass-through” systems and that they should never be filled more than half-full. I agree. From the low-stress livestock handling perspective, it’s best to bring fewer animals than more, and bring them with some momentum so they flow right through the tub and up the chute. And there will be a “just right” number, which might only be three or four.

      If you do close the crowd gate for some reason, the proper way to work a tub is from the front using these BudBox principles: (a) cattle want to see what’s pressuring them, (b) they want to see where we want them to go, and (c) they want to go by or around us. So, where does that put us? It puts us near the front. Also, from the front you can pressure resistant animals against the crowd gate until they figure out that they can’t get out that way, and they will soon enough turn around and squirt right past you and up the chute. In that way we really get a mind change, and we’re making our idea the animals’ idea so they willing do what we want. It’s a win:win.

      What most people do is try to push cattle through a tub from behind, whether they are inside with the animals or on the catwalk on the outside. In either case, animals need to turn their back to you to go into the chute which, by instinct, prey animals don’t like to do.

      Regarding the safety aspect of BudBoxes, they definitely should have a man-gate at the entrance for quick exit if working on foot. They also should be open-sided instead of solid so you can climb out quickly if needed. With “tough” cattle, as Chuck called them, I either work the BudBox on a big, solid, horse or on foot from the outside.

  2. Dave Scott says:

    I loved this. We have been putting what I have learned from Whit’s articles in On Pasture to use in handling our sheep and have had good success. Thank you Whit, and thanks for those who have commented along the way. Appreciate it!

  3. Hi Nesikep,

    Whit wrote specifically about handling in the corral, but he could have written a lot more about Bud Williams Stockmanship before you get to the corral. One of the main ideas is getting the minds of the animals “right” and moving “forward” (such as with the animals Whit photographed and described above). Once that’s happening, so many other things smooth out. If you have a box, pressure the animals against the opposite side from the alley, they will go around and by you and right up the alley! If you have a tub, pressure the animals against the back of the pen they are coming from into the alley and tub so they want to go around you, then keep them moving with good movement and they will keep moving forward. Get their minds right!

  4. Nesikep says:

    Have you found that cattle go uphill into something easier than downhill into something?
    Our chute is set up facing downhill, and they do balk at it…

  5. This is a great article! We, too, have tested various different distractions (including putting party streamer flags up and down the alley and driving them by billowing tarps) with the animals not reacting a bit when they are PROPERLY trained to drive and driven and then PROPERLY handled in the corral. As you said, when you look for “distractions” you are really distracting yourself from the main cause of poor outcomes, which is the handler.

  6. Jon says:

    Good stuff! And, with one exception, just what we’ve discovered here on our small but busy teaching farm. We’ve got distractions on top of distractions here but the one thing that will make our cattle stall and get flighty is a human (of any size) in the ‘wrong’ place. “Wrong” meaning: wherever the cow didn’t expect, or disagrees with. We preach ‘calm people equal calm cattle”…..nice to see this published.

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