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How to Drive Livestock Using Low-Stress Handling Techniques

By   /  June 19, 2017  /  2 Comments

Driving is one of the most common interactions we have with our livestock. Here’s how to make that less stressful for everyone involved.

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This article is part of Whit Hibbard’s Good Stockmanship series. You can see all the articles in this series here.

Just about everything we do with our cattle comes down to driving them someplace, whether to summer pasture and back, or into or out of the corral, or up the alley, onto the scale, or through the crowd pen and up the chute. And a really important thing to understand is that if we don’t drive our animals properly we’re going to have problems (e.g., resistance, runbacks), but if we drive them properly we should avoid creating unnecessary problems and old problems will often disappear.

When done conventionally, driving can be very high stress. It often entails a lot of help, relentless pressure, noise, aggressive or barking dogs, stock whips, and racing around. Basically, we just out-gun ‘em and make ‘em go where we want with fear and force. And that’s exactly what I did for 38 years. In reality, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but try and tell me that at the time and I wouldn’t have listened because, of course, I knew that there was only one way to work a cow. But now I’ve learned that there’s a better way.

From the low-stress livestock handling perspective developed by Bud Williams, all the hoopla of conventional driving is unnecessary and counter-productive. Effective driving is based on communicating with the animals through proper technique so they understand what we want and do it willing—no fear or force necessary.

So lets look at two effective ways to drive cattle.

Driving From Behind

The way to drive animals from behind is to apply pressure into their sides at a forward angle with the straight-lined zigzag technique.

Here’s what the ziazag technique looks like. The picture on the left shows a flat zigzag, used for animals that are very sensitive to human presence, and the one on the right shows the more direct zigzag used for animals who are used to people and need a little more pressure to get going. (Read all about the zigzag technique here.)

This is how it’s used when you’re driving a herd:

There are two important points to keep in mind:

1. Every animal you pass must move ahead in response to your pressure.
If any do not, you need to momentarily interrupt your zigzag pattern and pressure that animal directly until it moves. If you don’t do this you are teaching that animal that it does not have to move which results in dull, unresponsive cattle.

2. Focus on driving from the middle of the herd.
Don’t try to go from one side of the herd to the other, just work back and forth in the middle third or half — and that might only be four or five steps each way — until you get some straight movement going away, then you can widen out the area you are working to feed other cattle to this movement. If you start good movement up the center it will draw the sides and corners. Also, if you go too far across it tends to turn the lead.

Driving From the Sides

Another technique is driving from the sides. As with driving from the rear, there’s a correct way and incorrect way. What people normally do is ride up the sides and poke at little groups, without realizing that they are slowing or stopping everything behind them.

To drive cattle effectively from the side you need to go against their direction of travel (front to rear or head to tail) within their pressure zone which causes them to speed up to get past you. We call this technique “reverse-parallel.” (Read more about this technique here.)

One very important point is how to return to where you started so you can repeat this technique. What conventional handlers do is turn around and retrace their steps, but this is a forward-parallel movement that slows or stops animals. So, the way to return is to go wide to the side to get out of the animals’ pressure zone and using the all-important straight lines, as depicted below:

This can be done as a technique in itself and letting the rear take care of itself, or in conjunction with someone driving from the rear.

Speeding Animals Up

Conventionally, people do what? They up the pressure behind on the belief that the more pressure they apply the faster the cattle will go, but often the reverse is true; it can slow us down because under excess pressure animals become uncooperative and want to go back where they came from.

So, from the rear we can speed a herd up in one or all of three ways: (a) sharpening the angle of our zigzag, (b) increasing our speed, or (c) increasing our presence, all of which apply more pressure.

If on the side of the herd, ride reverse-parallel at a faster pace and closer in, both of which apply more pressure on the animals to move past you.

To slow animals down, ride up the side in the same direction they are traveling (forward-parallel) within their pressure zone.

Common Mistakes

I’ve found that learning this stuff is as much about learning what not to do as what to do, so we’ll look at a few common driving mistakes.

1. Too much help.
The conventional belief is the more help the better. From the low-stress perspective, less help is better (to a point).

2. Making noise.
According to Williams, “Yelling is probably the most detrimental thing we can do while working livestock.” Why? Because it takes their mind off where we want them to go. Also, noise is stressful on animals.

3. Going parallel with movement.
This tends to slow and stop movement which is very detrimental when trying to drive animals somewhere.

4. Following directly behind.
Another forward-parallel movement that slows movement. Also, it draws the animals’ attention back to us instead of on the ones they should be following and where we want them to go.

5. Pushing from directly behind.
This is problematic because we’re in the animal’s blind spot, so it wants to turn around and face us and even go back.

You can delve deeper into Stockmanship with Whit Hibbard’s quarterly Stockmanship Journal. Click to learn more.

6. Encircling animals.
This is very predatorial and prey animals don’t like it.

7. Not releasing pressure.
Conventional cowboys often relentlessly push on cattle and never give them a release, so they’re never rewarded for doing the right thing, which is moving off pressure.

Next month we’ll talk about turning the herd. Stay tuned!

This article was drawn from one that first appeared in Drovers magazine.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

2 Comments

  1. Donald Keller says:

    I did some cattle moving the other day and kept this article in mind. It REALLY helped. Stay calm and zig-zag on.

  2. Jeffory Coleman says:

    I see you added a print button. Thanks

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