5 Tips to Improve Your Approach to Cattle Handling

We’ve all seen it. The gentle rancher who turns Hyde in the face of cattle handling. Sticks or prods come out, and everyone prepares for the yelling that will follow. But what if that rancher could just be his or her gentle self even when working cattle?

This past winter, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on a couple of presentations that emphasized the importance of low-stress cattle handling. It’s almost an art form; a dance that uses the animal’s natural behaviour to encourage a particular movement. First, cattle handlers use the animal’s body language to determine its flight zone (or the area surrounding an animal that causes movement when entered by a perceived threat). Then, using that knowledge, a good handler can encourage or discourage movement based on their own position, movement and body language.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a pro at handling cattle. You do it the way your parents did, and the way your parents’ parents did. I must say, I felt the same way before hearing these presentations. But, there’s something for everyone to learn in the way of stockmanship.

Curt Pate, stockmanship instructor, talks about cattle handling and communication. Filmed at the Livestock Care Conference in Calgary.

5 Tips to Improve Your Approach to Cattle Handling

  1. Attend Clinics with an Open Mind – I alluded to this in the previous paragraph. It’s incredibly important to attend clinics or workshops with an open mind, as this will allow you to truly hear what the presenter is saying. You’ll find some of your behaviours are already hitting the nail on the head, and find others that can further improve your techniques.
  2. Train Animals – This is a tip I picked up from Curt Pate at the Livestock Care Conference in Calgary last week. He said, “most people don’t think about training their cattle, they think about tricking their cattle.” How true. Start animals at a young age. Train them to walk — not charge — past humans. Talk, don’t yell. Encourage, don’t pressure.
  3. Put Away the Shakers – This is more about you than the animal. Have some extra time? Put away the tools you usually use to handle cattle. Use only the position of your body. This will help you learn the body language of the animal you’re targeting, and how your position impacts theirs. Know your goal. When you’re in the flight zone, try moving in the direction that opposes your goal. When outside of the flight zone, move in the same direction as your goal. Don’t circle, use straight lines. Stay out of the blind zone.
  4. Take Responsibility – This is a tip I picked up from Dylan Biggs. Ever hear someone’s frustrated holler that they’re just stupid cows? Or that their handling facilities are dreadful? Step up. If animals aren’t behaving the way we want, it likely has something to do with our position, or how we reacted in previous circumstances. Perhaps that cow had a bad experience heading into the chute. Perhaps our body language was too predatorial. Perhaps we’re applying too much pressure. When we start taking responsibility for the way our cattle behave, we can start taking responsibility for correcting it.
  5. Communicate with Others – I just had to ask Curt Pate how he politely encourages others to try to handle cattle in this manner. He acknowledged that most people will find suggestions during cattle work rather offensive. Instead, he suggested communicating the expectations of the day before it begins. If that doesn’t work out, maybe it’s time to find someone else to work with.

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