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Don’t Let Misconceptions About Low-Stress Livestock Handling Get In Your Way

Whit Hibbard is a 4th generation Montana rancher and editor of Stockmanship Journal. You’ll get lots of great information like this with your subscription to the Journal. Click to get started!

Low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) suffers from many common misconceptions, mostly as a consequence of its name. Without knowing anything about it, as soon as people hear the term “low stress,” all kinds of unfounded notions come to mind. My purpose here is to identify and clarify some of these before they become established, through shear force of repetition, as truth.

Its a slower, quieter version of what I already do.

This is the most common misconception. Conventional stock handlers think that all they have to do is what they’ve always done, only slower and quieter. Unfortunately, this is actually “slow-stress handling” because they have not really changed how they handle their animals (i.e., their techniques are the same). Consequently, their animals are still stressed. They’re still forcing cattle, just slower and quieter.

Bud Williams said, “‘Low stress’ is the end result of good stockmanship, not the result of people going slow when working animals.” LSLH is about the proper pressure applied at the proper angle and time which results in clear and consistent communication, so the animals understand and willingly do what we want. It’s not about doing what we’ve always done, only slower and quieter.

“Low stress” means “no stress.

No it doesn’t. Most everything we do with livestock involves some degree of stress; our job is to minimize it. The problem isn’t stress per se, it’s how much stress and for how long. Stress becomes a problem when it’s at high levels and/or long duration. Modest stress for a short duration is not a problem. However, it is important to relieve handling-induced stress. According to Bud, “The one thing that we’re really not doing in the industry is taking the stress off of the animals that we put on ‘em when we work ‘em. If we don’t undo those problems then we start having poor performance and health problems.”

In LSLH we let our livestock do what they want.

No we don’t. We tell our livestock what to do through proper technique, then, and only then, we can let them do what has become their idea. Bud admonishes us to “Tell your animals what you want them to do and mean it. Don’t tell them to do something and let them do something else and go stop them and fight them all day. Never let them decide what to do.”

In LSLH we need to remember that we are a “benevolent dictator,” as Bud says. Working cattle is not a democratic process, nor are decisions made by committee. So, Bud tells his animals what to do, always. The handler sets things up correctly, tells them what to do, then lets them do what they have been told to do. This is radically different from letting animals do what they want willy-nilly, which is what a lot of stockmen do who mistakenly think they are doing LSLH.

In LSLH we ask our livestock to do what we want.

Bud Williams working cattle as part of a workshop. (photo courtesy of

I think this was an import from natural horsemanship—well intentioned but incorrect. Bud says, “Tell ‘em, don’t ask ‘em.” We need to always remember that we are the leader, we are the boss. If we aren’t, the cattle will gladly assume that role and then we have chaos.

To work livestock in a low-stress manner we cant apply a lot of pressure on our animals.

People who witnessed Bud working livestock were often very surprised at how much pressure he’d exert on them. The difference is that Bud knew when, where, and how to pressure. The idea is to use the least amount of pressure possible first and escalate as needed. If we always work at level four we desensitize them. It’s also vitally important to release the pressure immediately after the desired response is obtained.

Working livestock in a low-stress manner takes too much time.

No it doesn’t. The way to work animals fast is to work them effectively. That is, if we work our animals properly according to the principles and techniques of LSLH (reviewed in prior Guest Editorials in Drovers) we will actually get our work done in less time. Ironically, the faster we try to get something done with livestock the longer it will take. For one reason, we won’t be wasting time dealing with the consequences of handling mistakes.

Its not low stress if you are assertive with your livestock.

Bud said, “When I move cattle I don’t fool around. I’m not easy on animals. I’m not hard on animals. I just move them in such a way that they like it.” LSLH isn’t low stress because we move around our animals really slow and let them just plod around. It’s low stress because we are clear and consistent in our communications, don’t confuse them with bad technique and mixed messages, and we establish leadership, so they can relax.

Animals shouldn’t move fast.

Cows jump as they go out in the meadow for the first time of the year, in Abcoude, Netherlands, 15 March 2011.

Some stockmen get the idea that if their animals are moving fast that it’s not good, that it’s not low stress. As Bud explains, the question is, Why are they moving fast? If they are moving fast out of fear and to get away from you then that’s not good. If they are moving fast, even running and bucking, because they are feeling good, then that’s healthy and not to be discouraged.

In conclusion, it’s just as important to know what LSLH isn’t as what it is.




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