Low-Stress Stockmanship Course Was A Mind Bender

Fodder for Thought

"Exercise-pairing" of cows and calves one example of teaching stock their side of low-stress behavior.

Published on: November 7, 2013

New knowledge helps us perceive the world anew and reshape our relationships to it. Last week’s stockmanship seminar in Livingston, Montana, (which I spoke of in my last blog) provided me the opportunity to do just that.

This day-long course sponsored by Montana-based Western Sustainability Exchange was a jam-packed crash course in all things low-stress livestock handling and one of the best, well-structured courses of its kind I have experienced.

In his presentation, guest speaker and stockmanship expert Whit Hibbard explained the basics of and made the case for low-stress livestock handling methods.

How Important? This pie chart from Montana rancher Whit Hibbard shows his emphasis on the importance of each piece of the stockmanship puzzle.
How Important? This pie chart from Montana rancher Whit Hibbard shows his emphasis on the importance of each piece of the stockmanship puzzle.

He used a pie chart you can see here in my blog to visually show what he believes to be the main components of stockmanship. He also broke down the methodology of livestock handling into key pillars and principles. All this proved quite useful for participants to visualize and differentiate between proper and improper livestock handling in the videos and images shown throughout the course.

However, what I found most appealing was Hibbard’s focus on using examples and scenarios that were relatable to the ranchers attending. As a Montana rancher himself, Hibbard is familiar with the management practices and day-to-day livestock handling encounters which ranchers in this region face.

Topics he touched on such as handling of cow-calf pairs and placing cattle to graze on open range were things these ranchers were interested in hearing more about.

"Exercise-pairing" of cows and calves was of particular interest to those present. This practice involves working cows and calves together to teach them to drive away straight in the desired direction and can come in handy when moving and trailing pairs from one pasture to another.

Hibbard’s quote from Bud Williams sums up the situation: "When you have trouble with cows and calves it’s almost always due to how you start 'em."

Exercise-pairing plays on the idea that calves learn from their mothers. By teaching cows and calves to move off straight and stay paired up, handlers will have better-behaved and manageable stock. It should also create fewer issues of having to "pair up" calves that became separated from their mothers.

To start pairs in this fashion, Hibbard says you should begin working with cows and calves soon after birth.

"Work with pairs as you ride through the herd," he says. "If a cow leaves, bring her back. Drive them [the pair] away straight. Make sure they’re together before you leave."

You can read a more in-depth article on exercise pairing here.

Temple Grandin has said, "Every time you are working your animals you are training them."  Given this fact, each time we work with livestock we are given an opportunity to train them to be easy to handle or difficult.

Hibbard made a point to emphasize the importance of reading, preparing and working with livestock to get them to do what we want. Exercise pairing is just one of many examples he gave of practices producers can start to create a better handling experience for both themselves and their livestock.

"Why don’t we train our cattle to behave the way we want?" says Hibbard. "We already do this with our horses and dogs."

One would think that training our cattle would mesh more easily in the scheme of things. As Hibbard says, "It doesn’t cost anything but a change in thinking and a change in behavior."

Yet, paradigms don’t shift easily. Training cattle and instilling a desire in them to work for us, instead of against, will likely continue to seem like a foreign concept for many. Yet from the turn-out of ranchers I witnessed at last week’s clinic, our industry is headed in the right direction.

Deep down, I truly believe the majority of ranchers will always want to do the right thing, even when they are unsure what that right thing is.

Bud used to say, "Focus on learning how to work animals properly … The goal should be to get a good job done right."

In the end, this will be better for the handler, the livestock and the bottom line.