Techniques of low-stress livestock handling

From the November issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

Now that we have made the case for low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as an essential component of operating sustainable and profitable livestock operations, we can get into techniques.

Remember we"re building a sort of house where the foundational elements must be in place first: mindset, attitude, reading animals, working animals and preparing animals. We also introduced its 12 principles in prior columns to get you to this point.

Bud Williams said, "The secret to LSLH is being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing."

Simple as that! But, unfortunately, many stockmen and I was no exception spend most of their time in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. So, what we"re going to look at in this and future columns is how to be in the right place at the right time and do the right thing, because when we do, we effectively communicate what we want to our animals and they willingly respond.

The question, then, is how do we effectively communicate?

The answer is through the application of good technique. As summarized by Lynn Locatelli, a veterinarian and a close student of Bud"s, "If you use good technique they understand."

According to Bud, the crux of good technique is this: "The way we move, how we move, and where we move to are important to communicate with animals. If you move properly the animal will respond properly. Your position is everything!"

As a young man on our cowboy crew I had absolutely no concept of this. Basically, working cattle was based on fear and force in other words, what Locatelli calls a "mashfest."

Instead, the purpose of the techniques of LSLH is to put us in the proper position. In other words, they are to help us be where we should be and keep us from being where we shouldn"t be to effectively communicate what we want to our animals. That facilitates good outcomes.

When we don"t move properly and are not in the correct position we confuse our animals; that"s when they become difficult to work with and we get bad outcomes. Pre-Bud I had no idea, nor did my compadres, that we were literally confusing our animals much of the time by being out of position, and didn"t understand that when we confuse cattle they will start making their own decisions or just want to get away from us.

Position is everything

It"s also vitally important to understand that, as Bud said, "Proper position on your part is all the pressure you ever need to move animals, and if you"re in the proper position animals will want to move in the direction you want."

To drive this point home, when Bud used to teach hands-on stockmanship clinics, he"d take away all his students" "crutches" (horses, dogs, hotshots, prods, paddles) and require them to keep their mouths shut and their hands in their pockets and only use their body position.

Use straight lines

When doing all the techniques it"s very important to maintain straight lines. According to Bud, when we"re working animals they like us to move in straight lines. Animals respond better to straight lines than curved lines; consequently, it is more effective to work them in straight lines. For one thing, curved movements are predatorial and prey animals don"t like it. Additionally, our intentions are easy for animals to read when we move in straight lines, which helps keep them in a normal frame of mind, builds trust and clearly communicates what we want.

Imagine a car curving toward you at a high rate of speed. How does that make you feel?

Now imagine the same car coming at you at the same rate of speed, but it is maintaining a straight line and you can calculate its trajectory and see that it is going to miss you. How does that make you feel?

The prior instance is unnerving because you can"t read the driver"s intentions. Similarly, when working animals, Bud advised that we "Positively commit to a direction and maintain a straight line. Livestock then understand what you want."

Do the zigzag

We will first look at driving cattle from the rear because that"s what most people do, and it"s a very effective way to move cattle if done correctly. The problem is that most people don"t know how to do it correctly.

Conventional livestock handlers, when driving cattle from the rear, generally create a lot of pressure via noise, dogs and pushing from directly behind. Unfortunately, this does not apply effective pressure so animals want to move away and straight. Instead, it generally causes animals to get in an uncooperative frame of mind so they either want to escape or push back. 

To drive cattle effectively from the rear we need to zigzag. Ever watch a good Border Collie drive cattle? What do they do? They move in straight lines back and forth behind them, moving closer with each pass as depicted in this diagram.

For the technique to work, our back and forth angle needs to be directed into the animals" sides at a forward angle as we pass behind, as the following photo sequence illustrates. This creates effective pressure and drives them forward.

Consequently, the zigzag is a very effective method of driving animals straight ahead, whether in a corral, an alleyway or in a pasture.

What size?

Important questions are: How sharp of an angle do we take, and how far across do we go? The answers depend on the animals" sensitivity.

With more sensitive animals we need to go at a flatter angle which applies less pressure, which allows us to go farther across.

With less sensitive animals, meaning the ones that don"t want to move, we have to use a sharper angle which means that we can"t go across as far or else we"ll run into them and cut some off.

In summary, the most effective way to drive cattle forward from behind them is to use a zigzag pattern that applies effective forward pressure into their sides, to which they willingly respond by moving away straight.

Whit Hibbard is a fourth-generation Montana rancher and publisher/editor of  Stockmanship Journal..


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