Misconceptions of Low-stress Handling
By: Whit Hibbard
Low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) suffers from many common misconceptions, mostly as a consequence of its name. Without knowing anything about it, as soon as people hear the term “low stress,” all kinds of unfounded notions come to mind. My purpose here is to identify and clarify some of these misconceptions before they become established, through shear force of repetition, as truth.
1. It’s a slower, quieter version of what I already do. This is the most common misconception. Conventional stock handlers think all they have to do is what they’ve always done, only slower and quieter. Unfortunately, this is actually “slow-stress handling” because they have not really changed how they handle their animals. Their techniques are the same. They’re still forcing cattle, just slower and quieter. Consequently, their animals are still stressed.
Bud Williams, originator of the LSLH method who died in 2012, often said, “‘Low stress is the end result of good stockmanship, not the result of people going slow when working animals.”
LSLH is about the proper pressure applied at the proper angle and time which results in clear and consistent communication, so the animals understand and willingly do what we want. It’s not about doing what we’ve always done, only slower and quieter.
2. “Low stress” means “no stress.” No it doesn’t. Most everything we do with livestock involves some degree of stress; our job is to minimize it. The problem isn’t stress per se, it’s how much stress and for how long. Stress becomes a problem when it’s at high levels or for a long duration. Modest stress for a short duration is not a problem. However, it is important to relieve any handling-induced stress.
“The one thing that we’re really not doing in the industry is taking the stress off of the animals that we put on them when we work them,” Bud said. “If we don’t undo those problems then we start having poor performance and health problems.”
3. In LSLH we let our livestock do what they want. No we don’t. We tell our livestock what to do through proper technique, then—and only then—we can let them do what has become their idea.
Bud told us to “tell your animals what you want them to do and mean it. Don’t tell them to do something, let them do something else, go stop them and fight them all day. Never let them decide what to do.”
In LSLH we need to remember we are a “benevolent dictator” as Bud said. Working cattle is not a democratic process, nor are decisions made by committee. Bud always told his animals what to do. The handler sets things up correctly, tells the cattle what to do by applying the proper pressure at the proper angle, then lets them do what they have been told to do.
This is radically different from letting animals do what they want willy-nilly—which is what a lot of stockmen do when they mistakenly think they are doing LSLH.
4. In LSLH we ask our livestock to do what we want. I think this idea was imported from natural horsemanship practices—it’s well-intentioned but incorrect. Often, Bud said, “Tell ‘em, don’t ask ‘em.”
We need to remember we are the leader and the boss. If we aren’t, the cattle will gladly assume that role, leaving us in chaos.
5. To work livestock in a low-stress manner we can’t apply a lot of pressure on our animals. People who witnessed Bud working livestock at his many trainings across the country were often very surprised at how much pressure he’d exert on the cattle. The difference was Bud knew when, where and how to pressure cattle to achieve his goal.
The idea is to use the least amount of pressure possible first and escalate as needed. If we always work them at level four, we desensitize them to normal handling pressure. It’s also vitally important to release the pressure on the cattle immediately after the desired response is obtained.
6. Working livestock in a low-stress manner takes too much time. No it doesn’t. The way to work animals fast is to work them effectively. That is, if we work our animals properly according to the principles and techniques of LSLH, we will actually get our work done in less time. For one reason, we won’t be wasting time dealing with the consequences of previous handling mistakes. Ironically, the faster we try to get something done with livestock, the longer it will often take.
7. It’s not low stress if you are assertive with your livestock. Bud said, “When I move cattle I don’t fool around. I’m not easy on animals. I’m not hard on animals. I just move them in such a way that they like it.”
LSLH isn’t low stress because we move our animals around really slow and let them just plod along. It’s low stress because we are clear and consistent in our communications; don’t confuse them with bad technique and mixed messages; and we establish leadership, so they can relax.
8. Animals shouldn’t move fast. Some stockmen get the idea that if their animals are moving fast it’s not good or low stress. In his work Bud would’ve asked: Why are they moving fast? If they are moving fast out of fear and to get away from you then that’s not good. If they are moving fast, even running and bucking, because they are feeling good, then that’s healthy and not to be discouraged.
Again, it’s just as important to know what LSLH is as what it is not.
Whit Hibbard is a fourth generation Montana rancher and editor of Stockmanship Journal.