In my articles to date, I introduced and made the case for low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as an essential component of operating sustainable livestock operations, and reviewed its requisite foundational elements (i.e., mindset, attitude, reading, working, and preparing animals). These elements laid the basis for this discussion of principles, which will in turn lead to a review of techniques, followed with practical applications.
Principles are the why part; that is, why LSLH works. Furthermore, an understanding of principles empowers us to learn for ourselves. That is, if we understand principles we can usually figure out what to do to properly work our livestock. For that reason, Bud Williams said, “Understand the principles; don’t try to copy me.”
A careful study of Bud’s teachings reveals at least 12 principles:
Keep animals in a normal frame of mind
To work animals in a low-stress manner it is essential that they be in a normal frame of mind, and that is entirely a function of how the stockman handles them. If the stockman gets them out of a normal frame of mind (e.g., panicked, fearful, anxious, defensive)—as is often the case in conventional livestock handling—their survival instinct kicks in, they react instead of respond, and they can become very difficult to work with. However, the conventional handler does not realize that he caused this and instead blames the cows and looks for excuses for why they aren’t handling well.
Animals should not be forced to do anything that they don’t want to do or they are not ready to do.
Unfortunately and unnecessarily, this is exactly what happens in conventional handling which is based on fear and force. In LSLH we work with our animals and prepare them for what we will be having them do, and communicate what we want them to do through the application of proper technique, which makes them want to do what we want.
Set up every situation so our idea becomes the animals’ idea.
Most people think that we work our animals physically, which indeed is the case in conventional handling. But think how much easier it would be to work our cattle if we could make our idea their idea—like going up the loading dock and onto the truck, or up the lead-up into the squeeze chute—which is exactly what we do in LSLH.
Animals want to avoid pressure, and they need to experience release from pressure.
When cattle feel pressure it makes them uncomfortable. Therefore, they will do what they need to do to find relief from that pressure. In practical terms, that usually means moving away from pressure that we strategically apply to get them to move and in a desired direction. Once they move, however, they need to feel a release from that pressure which is the reward for doing the right thing. The low-stress handler is keenly aware of this, whereas the conventional handler will quite often apply pressure to get a particular response and keep applying pressure which punishes the animal for doing the right thing. As a consequence, cattle can become hard to drive.
They want to be in a herd.
Cattle are prey animals and are genetically programmed to seek safety in a herd. Think how much easier it would be to do the things we do with our livestock, like trail out, or placing them on a particular area we want grazed, or gathering, if they willingly stayed together in a herd. The reason they don’t want to stay in a herd is because we have made the herd a bad place to be through improper handling. That is, from the cow’s perspective, every time it’s in a herd it’s an unpleasant experience (e.g., being over-crowded in the corral, mashed on when driven someplace, or stored in alleyways).
Cattle have a tendency to move in the direction they are already headed, perhaps because it’s easier than turning. An understanding of this fact is useful in determining ones angle of approach.
They want to follow other animals.
As noted above, cattle are herd animals. They also are social animals. As a result they like to follow other cattle. Ever watch a single animal in a herd of cattle get up and go someplace and the whole herd gets up and follows? This is what we call “good movement” and it’s the result of properly approaching, starting and driving animals (which will be the subject of future columns).
Good movement attracts good movement.
Knowing how to establish good movement, and how not to interfere with it once established, is essential to gathering cattle effectively and easily.
Animals want to see what’s pressuring them.
If you were a prey animal wouldn’t you want to see what’s pressuring you? This principle has many implications for how we position ourselves relative to the animal(s) as we will see in future columns.
They want to see where you want them to go.
If someone tells you to go someplace, wouldn’t you like to see where that is? The same is true with cattle. As with the prior principle, this simple fact has implications for our positioning (e.g., positioning ourselves sometimes between the cattle and where we want them to go).
They want to go by you or around you.
This principle explains many things, like why it is important to work the “inside arc,” how to properly position yourself in a crowd pen (whether wedge-shaped, a tub, or BudBox), why moving from front to back in an alleyway or lead-up speeds animals up, to name a few.
Under excess pressure they want to go back where they came from.
If you felt excess pressure from something wouldn’t you want to go back to where you last felt comfortable? The same is true with cattle. This principle partially explains why BudBoxes work and has many useful applications, especially during corral work.
If you want to be a low-stress handler, it is essential to thoroughly understand and operationalize these principles. (In future articles we will see many specific applications of these principles.) Also, when things don’t go as you’d like when working your cattle, always ask yourself this question: What principle(s) am I violating? If you can answer that you will likely be able to find a solution to your livestock handling problem.