Defining, and prioritizing, good stockmanship

Based on results of the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA), a large majority of U.S. producers – 93 percent of them – believe they use good stockmanship practices. Montana rancher, writer and stockmanship advocate Whit Hibbard, however, believes that data point could protect the status-quo, and divert attention from an opportunity for many producers to benefit by adopting true low-stress practices.

Hibbard publishes Stockmanship Journal, an online, subscription-based publication devoted to animal-husbandry and stockmanship practices. In the latest issue, he questions that NBQA result in an article titled "The 2011 National Beef Quality Audit: A Critique." Hibbard maintains the survey methodology produced misleading results, particularly with regard to stockmanship. The survey, he says, simply asked producers "In what ways do you intentionally influence quality as a beef producer?", then provided a list of 10 possible choices and instructed respondents to mark all that apply. One choice was "Use of good stockman­ship and animal handling skills." As mentioned earlier, just under 93 percent of respondents checked that box.

Hibbard believes respondents answered the question based on their own definitions of "good" stockmanship and animal handling, and their personal biases regarding the practices they use and probably always have used. Based on his experiences, Hibbard says the percentage of ranchers using what he considers good stockmanship and animal-handling, meaning specific low-stress methods similar to those taught by the late stockmanship expert Bud Williams, is much lower.

One of the objectives of the NBQA is to use the results in designing and implementing BQA training programs, essentially to identify areas of weakness and target BQA training to address those weaknesses. Hibbard expresses concern that the NBQA response on the stockmanship issue provides the industry with a false sense of security. BQA planners, he believes, could place stockmanship and animal handling at the bottom of their priority list based on the 93 percent figure.

In a follow-up to his critique, Hibbard offers his proposal for a "Basic Skill Set for Low-Stress Livestock Handling Teachers." His proposal lists 22 specific skills, from approaching, driving, stopping, settling, placing, gathering, sorting, weaning and working cattle, loading scales, working corrals, crowd pens, and tubs, "Bud Boxes," squeeze chutes, receiving, loading out, pen riding, de-stressing and understanding flight zones and pressure zones. Each skill set includes a list of bullet points defining the handler's ability.

"This isn't to say that teachers need to be proficient in all the above skills," Hibbard says, "but the number of skills that one is proficient in is a reflection of one's depth of understanding and experience in low-stress livestock handling."

To its credit, the industry has recognized the importance of stockmanship and has implemented training programs. For several years, NCBA and Cattlemen's College sponsor Zoetis (formerly Pfizer Animal Health) have conducted live demonstrations at the national Cattle Industry Convention and other events. Various industry organizations and businesses have developed instructional videos and other educational resources on the subject, several of which are listed below.

More certainly could be done, and hopefully the industry and BQA trainers will continue to pursue improvements in animal handling. Research and experience have shown low-stress handling practices can provide multiple benefits by improving animal health, welfare and performance, protecting beef quality, enhancing pasture and range management and reducing human labor. Producers who believe they employ good husbandry and animal-handling practices could, in many cases, benefit from training in low-stress stockmanship.

The fact that 93 percent of producers believe they practice good animal-handling methods, and see a connection between those practices and beef quality, shows at the very least a high level of awareness. The next step for many will be recognition that continuous improvement is possible and beneficial to their operations.  

A number of resources can help producers begin the process of implementing low-stress animal-handling methods.

  • The national BQA program offers a free75-minute DVD on cattle handling for cow-calf producers. Individual video segments from the DVD are available online at the website.
  • NCBA offers a Low-Stress Cattle Handling DVD, funded by Zoetis and the National Cattlemen's Foundation. The DVD includes sections on handling cattle on horseback, on foot and with dogs. Cost is $15.
  • Bud Williams is widely acknowledged as the founder and foremost expert on low-stress livestock handling. Williams unfortunately passed away in November 2012, but his wife Eunice continues to maintain his website, which offers videos and other useful resources.
  • Low Stress Cattle Handling: An Overlooked Dimension of Management, a DVD available from
  • In addition to the articles mentioned here, the current issue of Stockmanship Journal provides in-depth information on integrating stockmanship in range management, placing cattle, placing cattle for holistic herding and references to other resources.