High Noon for Low-stress Livestock Handling
Time and Money Saving Approaches to Managing Cattle and Maintaining Functioning Ecosystems
Guest article and photos by Julia Babcock, National Policy Consensus Center
Low Stress, High Returns
A cadre of cowboys driving steers and spooking the herd with raucous fanfare and whips cracking is a familiar scene in old westerns. The dated profiles of cowboys are often portrayed as stoic men, sparse on words except when hooting and hollering on horseback or picking fights. This rugged approach to life, love and livestock management plays well in Hollywood. However, this runs counter to an emerging paradigm in modern ranching where trust between stockman, their animals, and their communities is critical for day to day operations and the maintenance of functional ecosystems for wildlife and a host of other values.
Spurring conflict wears down and desensitizes both man and animal, which leads to burn out, rather than a functional business intended to last generations. Low-stress Livestock Handling (sometimes referred to as LSLH) is an approach that evolved, in part, out of these conflicts to apply behavioral psychology, scientific principles, and training techniques to improve livestock handling. This has implications for the process and outcomes of rangeland management, which has been the subject of Stockmanship Schools being held around the Western U.S.
At a recent Stockmanship School held at the Roaring Springs Ranch in Oregon, participants learned extensively about the returns of Low-stress Livestock Handling, including the health of stockman and the cattle they manage directly. These livestock management methods increase safety, immune function, live weight gains, as well as reduce injuries. They can also increase fertility rates, milk yields, and carcass quality. All of these positive outcomes are measurable per head of cattle, as well as the intangible benefit of an improved enjoyment of the agricultural lifestyle of workers who practice the low-stress approach. As management styles shift, rewards translate directly to dollars as the workers’ stockmanship improves, the animals become better trained and more manageable, and each production event becomes more efficient (i.e., easier, faster, and with less staff).
How You Drive Matters
An analogy pertaining to Low-stress Livestock Handling that was shared at the Roaring Springs Ranch Stockmanship School was one many can relate with. When someone tailgates you on the road it puts you on edge. You’re checking your blind spots and maybe even shifting your speed to avoid the aggressive behavior, such as slowing down to let them pass. The psychology is similar in herding cattle; if you ride on the tail of your cattle it causes stress and pushes the animal into a paranoia triggering it to look back constantly, or exhibit avoidance behavior, like running off. Road rage is the escalation of irrational behavior that only makes stressful driving worse. This is true for cars and cattle. In other words how you drive matters and LSLH aims to make the herd a safe place to be and limit the use of predator-prey scare tactics.
“When I’m assessing the herd; I need to test the gas pedal, the steering and the brakes and gauge responsiveness starting with the animal’s sensitivity and response to pressure,” said Chris Schachtschneider, assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, OSU Extension Service of Umatilla and Morrow County. Schachtschneider has developed an evaluation pamphlet entitled “Stockmanship: Attaining the ‘Training Trifecta:’ Temperament, Foundation & Task Completion” for home assessment of low-stress stockman techniques that participants can carry in the field.
“The goal is to start the cattle calm and leave them calm by applying pressure, and then release with each lesson and task achieved,” said instructor Steve Cote to students who participated in the Stockmanship School at the Roaring Spring Ranch. Those students had opportunities to practice the techniques taught in the classroom with some of the ranch’s cows. In one of those practice sessions, three volunteers tried the “T formation,” acting like a swinging gate to move the herd on foot. At one point somebody made a false move and the class watched as a few cattle hop a fence, demonstrating that cattle can quickly default back to escape tactics to escape your pressure (and potentially damage themselves and your property in the mean time). This mistake proved valuable for all. Back in the classroom, trainees watched aerial drone footage from the day’s fieldwork and debriefed how to avoid triggering such behavior on their own ranch.
Overcoming Internal and External Hurdles
Shifting the foundational understanding of what’s possible when cattle temperament, field work formations, and reward systems is important to achieving low-stress stockmanship. Whereas most land management changes require much more time, especially on public lands, these livestock handling changes can be implemented immediately in a ranch’s operation. This type of livestock and land management is not only good for the well being of stockmen and the animals they work with, but also in addressing public and private land issues through better grazing distribution to protect sensitive areas like wet meadows, streams and riparian areas to avoid conflicts with fish and wildlife species.
“The BLM supports low-stress stockmanship because we see it as a high return on investment in the near term,” said Laura Van Riper, Bureau of Land Management Social Scientist and Conflict Resolution/Collaboration Specialist with the National Riparian Service Team. “It’s part of an outcome-based grazing tool-box that can help sustain healthier livestock and the cultural landscapes they utilize for generations to come.”
For more information, here are a few low-stress stockmanship resources:
Sign up for the next training July 19-21, 2019 in Southern California taught by Dave Voth and Chris Schachtschneider. Contact Dave Voth to sign up, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Manual of Stockmanship: A Complete Livestock Handling Guide for the Range, Feedlot, Dairy and Farm Operation” by Steve Cote
“A Pocket Guide to Stock Handling for the Range Rider” by Steve Cote
Stockmanship Journal, Editor Whit Hibbard
“Stockmanship: Attaining the ‘Training Trifecta:’ Temperament, Foundation & Task Completion” by Wade Black and Chris Schachtschneider
Click here to see a photo album from June 2019 Low-Stress Stockmanship Training at Roaring Springs Ranch in Oregon.
These Stockmanship Schools are made possible do to resources and staff provided by Nevada Department of Agriculture, Roaring Spring Ranch, and the National Riparian Service Team.