Saturday, June 22, 2024
HomeLivestockBehaviorKathy's Principles for Working With Livestock

Kathy’s Principles for Working With Livestock

Over the last few weeks I’ve been highlighting the importance of principles. To me, principles are the key points to remember. They’re the building blocks for developing a successful plan to accomplish whatever I’d like to do. With that in mind, here are my principles for working with livestock. They grew out of seven years of working on a prescribed grazing project with a herd of 130 goats. If you’re new to livestock, or even if you’re not, these might be helpful to you.

They are colleagues, not livestock.

Cows, goats and sheep are colleagues in a work environment where we are all cordial and polite. Like my human colleagues, they have different skills and abilities and some understand what I’m saying better than others. So that I can be understood, I create expectations by using the same processes and procedures time after time. When they know what to expect, they do their jobs better.

Adhere to a “No violence in the workplace” policy.

Since my animals are all bigger and stronger than me, I’ve found a “No violence in the workplace” policy is safest for all of us. Over time, shoving and manhandling leads to animals who are flighty and distrustful around people. The simplest task requires chasing and more muscle, and thus increases the potential of injury to me first and the animal second. Whenever my frustrations invite anger or urge violence I try to remember that I have a brain and thumbs so I can create tools or processes that will make this all a little easier.

Horns are NOT to be used this way!

Animals may be violent with each other. It is their nature to communicate with head butts. However it is NEVER acceptable for them to communicate with me this way. With cows I demonstrate that I am bigger than them by presenting myself full on, sometimes with arms raised. I also watch their body language and avoid situations where I might have to prove myself.

If they can’t be violent with me, I can’t be violent with them either. Hitting, twisting tails, etc. is not only against the rules, it’s dangerous for me because these animals are tougher than I am. To help goats with non-violence, I rarely touch their horns or use them as “handles” because, as an old herder explained, “Touching the horns on a goat is like grabbing a football player’s face mask.

Create and maintain a relationship of trust.

I try to establish trust with my animals at an early age. This is most easily done with a combination of quiet, consistent behavior and some snacks. Animals who know that this is what they’ll get from me load and trail more easily, come when called, and return when lost. Having this relationship with at least some of the members of the herd makes it easier to work with less “tame” animals.

This is an example of leading a whole herd with tub of grain. Most of these animals didn’t even know who I was or what was in the tub. They just came along because my small group of trainees did.


Be mindful of the language you use.

Personal experience backed up by research demonstrates that animals can tell when you’re angry or frustrated and they’ll try to stay as far from you as possible. So talk quietly, and when you feel frustration or anger, stop, take a breath, and figure out a plan.

I spent an hour or so one hot summer day trying to round up a bunch of flighty heifers and move them back into their research trial pen. There was one that just would NOT go, and I was so hot and tired. Suddenly I remembered this principle. I stopped, checked my language, and decided I’d better be a little more polite. Alone in a 500 acre pasture with this one recalcitrant cow, I began directing her as if I were an usher at a fancy concert venue. “Please go this way! Your seat is over here, Madame.” Step by step, with me softly directing her with a gentle wave of my hand, she calmed and walked into the pen. Whew!

Familiarize them with their new work environments and orient them to their task.

When working with goats in a prescribed grazing situation, I walk my colleagues around the perimeters, show them where the water is and then lead them into the pasture to show them where they can start working. Because of our trusting relationship, this reduces their stress, prevents them from bunching up at the gate hoping to go back to where they came from, and ensures that they begin working productively right away. It’s really no different than showing a new employee where his office is, where the break room is, and where the bathrooms are.

Think like a cow, goat or sheep.

My friend, and goat project partner, Joel Godfrey, and one of our baby goats.

Whenever I have a problem with my herd doing something I don’t want them to do, or not doing something I want them to do, the solution comes more easily if I ask myself, “If I were a ___, what would I do?” This has helped me build better fences, find easier ways to load and unload animals, and to solve escape issues.

If you fail to plan, plan to fail.

Believe it or not, I sometimes show up ready to load or move animals with no real plan for the process. I forget that they may not understand my words or my body language. The result is that the project takes twice as long as it would have if I’d arrived with a clue.

Any time I find myself frustrated or the animals communicate their own frustration by running or scattering, I take time to develop a plan. (Remember that part about having a brain and thumbs!) A good plan should incorporate communication techniques that animals understand. Appropriately placed fence panels direct them into the trailer much more effectively than my waving arms, and they understand my requests much better when they’re accompanied by a bucket of grain. Using the same communication methods and plans over time creates a routine they understand, and is a key to success.

Now, you may be saying, “Gee! She treats them like they’re people!” That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I’ve found that these principles help me be successful when I’m working with human colleagues too.

This works for me, but everyone has his or her own style. I’d love to hear your secrets to success. (And yes, low-stress livestock handling is another tool that we write about a lot, and that technique can definitely benefit from these principles as well.)


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. I like a to whistle. I have long drawn out one that means come to me. And, no sharp short that they know means go forward (this is when I’m behind them pushing). Works well most of the time.

  2. I agree with most of this article. A lot of the things stated here come naturally to a person who’s worked with livestock for many years. It can be challenging though, to stop and think WHY I do what I do.

    One area that I have to frequently remind myself about, is when working with cattle in a parlor holding pen or corral. My eyes are five feet above the ground. The cattle’s eyes are much lower. It’s tempting to get frustrated at a cow because she won’t push past someone else and into the empty space beyond. Unlike myself, she can’t see that there’s space beyond the cow blocking her path. Her sightline is completely obstructed.

  3. I am farming in South Africa with sheep and cattle. By watching the reactions of the sheep toward each other and their lambs, I saw that they communicate by certain body signals. I started to mimic it and it works, although better for the sheep than cattle. The cattle needs another strickt worker to force them in the passage to work with. Always when I’m visiting my animals, I am talking calm and constantly to them. They will become very tame and especially the younger calves will come closer to greed you. GREETING SIGNAL: Stretched out arm and hand showed downward. They will often come and sniff or lick it. CHALLENGE SIGNAL: Stretched arm with hand palm and fingers showing upward. Especially ram lambs will come to play head-bump with you. My working language is to click with my tongue and hand signals, like a speed cop. I never click with only a visit. An animal gets confused where to go when you wave and swing your arms and shout. I will click my tongue and show them where to go. I nearby always work with them approaching from the front. I will show then with my outstretched arm where to go. Another worker will put the pressure at the back when needed. It is even working when I want them to turn around. I will show them to turn and the direction. I will talk strict when they do the wrong movement and will move to block them. I will guide and praise them calmly with the right movement. They are learning very quickly when they are already tame and in this calm environment. I am using a electric fence to divide the pasture into smaler paddocks. The cattle talks to you when the grass gets less. When I open the new piece I will call them with their herd call. Sounds…. MOEeeHOEE (with a raise in the pitch at the end) It is never needed to go and fetch them.

  4. I should have had someone pound these principles into me before I got any cows. OK: not “pound” but “entice” me to follow them. They also work for chickens, a creature with even less brain than a cow, I suspect.

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