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).
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.
As seen below, the cows entered the BudBox as if the truck weren’t there; i.e., it was of no concern to them.
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.
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.
Similarly, these yearling heifers walked right past a jacket hung on a broom handle at the entrance of the chute without even slowing down.
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.
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.
To test the claim that dangling chains cause balking, I hung one in the middle of the chute as seen below.
As seen in the following photo the calves took it in stride; they all walked right through it, pushing it aside.
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.
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.