From January of 2017, this Classic by NatGLC links to articles that help us consider how best to spend our money when it comes to livestock handling facilities.
On Pasture started out the first two weeks of 2017 with two articles we thought were especially important. They were a continuation of Whit Hibbard’s myth-busting series about cattle handling systems. First, we shared his findings that it’s a myth that shadows, chains, trash and other distractions necessarily prevent animals from moving through handling chutes. With the next article, he busted the myth that expensive facilities work better than simple ones. He compared Temple Grandin’s tubs and curved chutes with Bud Williams’ “Budbox” and the Budbox came out on top. Not only is it much cheaper, but as the videos at the end of the article show, a novice handler, given a little instruction, can easily move cattle through a Budbox, while two experienced handlers, Curt Pate and Temple Grandin, have to push and shove (with a horse) and poke the cattle with a flagged stick to get them to move into a tub.
Saying that someone may be wrong, especially when that someone is as popular as Temple Grandin, can be unpopular. And it’s not an easy thing to do given Dr. Grandin’s enormous accomplishments which include inspiring families living with autism, and almost single-handedly raising public awareness of animal welfare and humane slaughter. So we’d have to have a pretty good reason to say, “Hey, wait! Our tests reveal that some of the things she says aren’t correct.”
It turns out that you are that reason.
When I signed up to do On Pasture, one of its founding principles was that you would get unbiased information that would help your enterprise be as sustainable and profitable as possible. And that’s what Whit Hibbard’s articles do in this case.
What Dr. Hibbard is demonstrating is that you can save a lot of money by making a small investment in that gray matter between your ears. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a fancy cattle handling system; you just need to learn how to move animals. Even Temple Grandin, in response to Whit Hibbard’s and Lynn Locatelli’s in-depth analysis of her handling facilities, said, “the design of a facility becomes less and less important after a rancher or stocker operator has spent time with his/her cattle practicing low-stress methods.” The issue here is that with tub systems, as Bud Williams noted, we’ve taken something that we do poorly (stockmanship) and designed a system to perpetuate it because it is meant to take the human out of the equation as much as possible.
Of course, you may have questions about Whit’s findings, and you may want to explore more or share your experiences. That’s great and we advocate for an ongoing, constructive conversation on this topic. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about low-stress livestock handling, here’s a link to the original series analyzing Grandin’s work, and here’s a link to Whit’s ‘how-to’ articles in On Pasture.
Here are the comments from the first time we ran this article. Please add your own thoughts below!
From Bill Fosher:
Thank you for publishing this work. It’s important to remind ourselves every now and then that putting a little investment into the 3 pounds of gray matter between our ears nearly always generates a better return than spending money on iron.
Here’s my story.
Back when I was starting to get serious about sheep, I was coming to realize that I was going to need some sort of handling system to efficiently manage, medicate, sort, and load them.
It was also at the beginning of the handling tub craze.
I visited a few farms with spiffy new handling systems that used tubs and lordy that stuff looked like hard work. Even with a good dog, it seemed like the people were stuffing every sheep into the chute more or less by hand.
Being notoriously frugal, I thought, “If I’m still going to have to manhandle every sheep, I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend thousands of dollars on metal to do it in.”
At about the same time, my stepson got into Aikido, a Japanese martial art centered around using the opponent’s momentum to thwart the attack through redirection.
I also happened to see some videos of handling facilities for large groups of sheep in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia, and I noticed a distinct lack of tubs. I also noticed that one person with a good dog or two could move sheep through the system about as fast as they could accomplish whatever other task was at hand.
Then it hit me: these handling systems had three key things in common. First, they were designed to take advantage of natural behaviors of sheep — to follow, to move towards open space and away from pressure, and to move uphill. Of course, these are principles that Temple Grandin espouses, so they weren’t a news flash.
The second was that they were operated by people who clearly new how to move sheep and were filled with sheep that were used to being moved by people. The whole operation was simply no big deal. The people removed an obstacle, and the sheep moved forward, not because they were being forced to, but because it was their own idea.
A third thing was that not one of them had a tub. They all had a more or less straight line of vision from the rearmost holding pen to the exit of the chute.
I realized they were applying the same principles as my stepson’s Aikido — using the natural behaviors of the sheep to develop momentum and simply stepping out of the way and letting it take them through the system.
The more I looked at it, the more I came to see that tubs were about forcing the sheep into the chute, while the straight line systems were about letting them in on their own.
Over the years, Grandin’s work became more and more prominent and her systems became the darling of the animal welfare movement and became a standard fixture. I gather that in some places they were a major improvement, and for that I say huzzah. Anything that makes handling animals easier and safer for workers and livestock is a plus.
But I still had my own experience, and because I worked with sheep and not cattle, I figured that maybe cattle were different. It’s been very interesting to learn though these articles that they are not.
One of the beautiful things about On Pasture is that it provides a forum for us all to learn from each other. Thanks for offering information that will help to make the lives of some ranchers and their animals a little better.
From Troy Bishopp
“Saying that someone may be wrong” especially Temple Grandin does hurt and I think a bit misguided because of her vast on-the ground knowledge. Same with Bud or Whit’s way too as others may be hurt too. “Wrong” can be a sh@%$ty word. Each person can respect alternative opinions that create different scenarios for each farm or household to think about and test if it works. God knows I’ve been wrong about things but for others, with different goals and situations, it still works. There is right and wrong no doubt as the good book says. But for topics like this where local adaptability, skill and other factors play a big role in how something works, or needs some tweaking, wrong is not the appropriate response. Something to think about for the New Year as more paradigms may be challenged.
Kathy responds to Troy:
Thanks, Troy. You’re raising an important point. It’s sometimes true that what works on one person’s farm doesn’t work on another’s. But the question we’re trying to address is what is fact and what is not fact and is simply opinion.
One of the things we focus on at On Pasture is using the scientific method to help people find out what might work for them. That’s what Whit did. He didn’t set out to disprove Temple Grandin, he set out to prove or disprove some hypotheses. His questions were, “Are distractions very problematic?” and “Do tub systems work better than an alternative?” Until Whit began looking at this, there was very little scientific inquiry done on these two ideas, either by Dr. Grandin herself, or by others. (Kathy searched to find additional work and came up empty. What she did find were reports by Dr. Grandin that did not include testing.) Now Whit has done testing, shared how he did the tests, and provided the conclusions he arrived at. And this isn’t just one test. As he describes in the series analyzing Dr. Grandin’s handling facilities (link in the article above) he’s done multiple tests in multiple locations that all bring him to the same conclusions.
One of the awesome things about science is that we can continue to learn from it, sometimes being right and sometimes being wrong. When we see the science that proves what’s right or wrong we can change our minds. As a scientist herself, we think that Dr. Grandin will be interested in these results and that it could give her new ideas for her own work and research.
As the editors of On Pasture, we believe it’s our job to encourage this, and when we find something that we all thought was proven may not be accurate, it’s our job to share that with our readers. Sometimes wrong is the only word available, as sh@%$ty as it may be to hear.
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.