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The Case for Low-Stress Livestock Handling

WhitPortraitIn my first article, I introduced stockmanship as an under-appreciated and under-utilized component of operating sustainable livestock operations, and argued that its one essential component is low-stress livestock handling (LSLH). We need to ask why? Why is LSLH something that stockmen should take seriously? What evidence is there to persuade us that it is worth adopting?

The purpose of this article is to make the case for LSLH. I will argue briefly that it accrues benefits over conventional livestock handling in several categories, including performance, efficiency, safety, animal welfare, and quality of life.


Numerous scientific studies have illustrated that indices of animal performance (e.g., weight gain, conception rates, milk yield, immune function, and carcass quality) are positively correlated with good handling practices and negatively correlated with coercive handling practices. A few representative studies are presented briefly below.

Weight gain

  • An experiment with 144 backgrounded steers indicated that poor handling negatively impacted liveweight gain (Petherick et al., 2009).
  • A study in Hawaii found that lightly stressed heifers lost 4% of their liveweight and moderately stressed heifers lost 6% as compared to unstressed controls. Also, when weighed 44 days later the controls gained an average of 25 lbs., the lightly stressed 20 lbs., and the moderately stressed only 16 lbs. (Smith, 1998).

Conception rates

  • Stress and the resulting hormonal responses can disrupt ovulation and the preovulatory luteinizing hormone surge which reduces conception rates in dairy cows (Stoebel & Moberg, 1982).
  • Intensive negative human-animal interaction resulted in a 19% lower viability rate of embryos in a superovulation program experiment involving 32 cows (Macedo et al., 2011).
Contented Cow
Contented Cow

Milk yield

  • A study of dairies in England determined that stockmen had a dramatic effect on milk yields. Of two dairies that changed stockmen during the six year study period, one increased milk yields by 21.5% while the other decreased milk yields by 33.6% (Seabrook, 1984).
  • An Idaho dairy increased milk production by 4,000 pounds per day by adopting low-stress handling techniques (Smith, 1998).

Immune function

  • Stress has a significant impact on the incidence and severity of respiratory infections (Hodgson et al., 2005).
  • Vee Tee Feeders–an 8,000 head feedlot–historically doctored ~75 calves per day in October. After adopting low-stress livestock handling methods they doctored 3-5 per day. (Ritchi Davies, owner, Vee Tee Feeders, Inc., personal communication)

Carcass quality

  • The National Beef Quality Audit calculated that 5% of the beef carcasses in the U.S. are dark cutters due to the stress of improper handling.
  • The 1995 National Beef Quality Audit reported that dark cutting beef caused by pre-harvest stress cost $6.08 per animal harvested.


For instance, one Texas feedyard processed 800 fats per day. After LSLH training they processed 1400 per day with one less man. (Lynn Locatelli, DVM, personal communication)


Whit works cattle in BudBox.  Photo courtesy of Cattlexpressions
Whit works cattle in BudBox. Photo courtesy of Cattlexpressions

Between 2003-2007 there were 108 reported fatalities in the United States that involved cattle, mostly from working with them in enclosed areas, moving or herding, loading, or feeding (MMWR, 2009). “Animal contact is often ranked as the first or second leading cause of injuries on the farm” (Langley & Morrow, 2010, p. 226). Langley and Morrow stress that understanding livestock behavior in conjunction with proper handling practices are necessary to help make animal handling a safe activity.


The public and corporate buyers (e.g., MacDonald’s Corporation) are becoming increasingly concerned about how the animals they consume and purchase are raised, treated, transported and slaughtered. Stockmanship is an essential part of this equation. In fact, the Farm Animal Welfare Council in Canada issued a Report on Stockmanship and Farm Animal Welfare that emphasized that stockmanship is “the single most important influence on the welfare of farm animals” (Wathes, 2007).

Quality of Life

The one remaining benefit, but by no means the least important, is quality of life. Farmers, ranchers, and dairymen often talk of their “way of life” and that that’s what keeps them in the business in spite of the lack of financial rewards. So, to the degree that LSLH can make handling their livestock less stressful (on them as well as the animals), more enjoyable and personally rewarding, the better.

Judging from personal experience, working livestock properly (i.e., using the principles and techniques of LSLH) can be easy, rewarding and even fun, or, if done improperly, profoundly difficult, frustrating, and downright miserable.


An important point is that all the above benefits require no additional input. In fact, they reduce input (e.g., less labor, as noted above). It doesn’t cost anything except a change in human behavior, which reminds me of a quote from William Dempster Hoard, the founding president of the National Dairy Union who championed the good treatment of dairy cows as early as the 1930s, who said: “If cows could talk, they would be heard all over this country calling for an improved breed of dairymen.”


It is unquestionable that LSLH, if employed properly, pays dividends in the form of increased performance, efficiency, safety, animal welfare, and quality of life, all with no additional inputs. In spite of the trend towards spending less time with our livestock and seeking mechanical and high-tech solutions to behavioral problems, it clearly makes sense for stockmen to improve their level of stockmanship by increasing their LSLH understanding and skill level.


Hodgson, P. D. et al. (2005). Effect of stress on viral–bacterial synergy in bovine respiratory disease. Comparative and Functional Genomics Comp Funct Genom, 6: 244–250.

Langley, R., & Morrow, W. (2010). Livestock handling–minimizing worker injuries. J Agromedicine, 15(3), 226-235.

Macedo, G., Zuccari, C., de Abreu, U., Negrao, J., & da Costa E Silva, E. (2001). Human-animal interaction, stress, and embryo production in Bos indicus embryo donors under tropical conditions. Trop Anim Health Prod (April 1). MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep (2009, July 31), 58(29), 800-804.

Petherick, J., Doogan, V., Venus, B., Holroyd, R., & Olsson, P. (2009). Quality of handling and holding yard environment, and beef cattle temperament: 2. Consequences for stress and productivity. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 120(1-2), 28-38.

Seabrook, M. (1984). The psychological interaction between the stockman and his animals and its influence on performance of pigs and dairy cows. Veterinary Record, 115, 84-87.

Smith, B. (1998). Moving em: A guide to low stress animal handling. Kamuela, HI: The Graziers Hui.

Stoebel, D., & Moberg, G. (1982). Repeated acute stress during the follicular phase and luteinizing hormone surge of dairy heifers. J Dair Sci, 65, 92-96.

Wathes, C. (2007, June). Report on stockmanship and farm animal welfare. Farm Animal Welfare Council. Retrieved 6/23/08 from

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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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