For some it might seem a method too slow or clumsy to be worth trying. A pie-in-the-sky "system" somebody a million miles from the closest cow cooked up. But natural stockmanship, or working cattle without all the force and fear that so often accompanies corralling or moving animals, could end up being one of the most practical, moneymaking things you could do for the herd.
This increasingly popular approach to handling cattle can have a dramatic impact on an operation's labor costs. For example, in many work situations natural stockmanship reduces in a big way the number of hands required. These days that can be especially important, since finding qualified cowboys isn't always easy.
Perhaps the system's most important impact on the herd - and its labor budget - occurs because of its effect on animal health. As herd tensions subside, health improves and fewer drugs and "doctoring sessions" become necessary.
"People are learning that a lot of our sickness in cattle is triggered by stress, because stress affects them like it does us," says Joel Ham, a rancher from Big Lake, Texas. Ham, who demonstrated natural stockmanship at the Cattleman's College during the 2006 National Cattlemen's Beef Association Annual Meeting in Denver, has used natural stockmanship for years.
"A doctor will tell you when you're under stress you're more susceptible to disease. If he's giving you medicine, he'll tell you that as long as you're under stress the medicine won't work as well."
Thirty years ago medical costs were less, but so was our understanding of the relationship between an animal's attitude and its performance. "But now we know," Ham says, "we've got hard evidence that the way you handle them will increase the daily gain, increase their feed intake, and reduce their sickness."
Vinita, Oklahoma, rancher Wally Olson couldn't agree more. Olson, who's used natural stockmanship for about eight years, likes what it does for the health of stockers he feeds. In general the calves' health and gain is far better than it once was.
"We used to figure it took us 30 days to get the pay weight back on the calves we buy," Olson said. "Now we can do it in three or four days. We'd bring them in and they'd continue to lose weight because they're under stress. Well, with this they don't."
'Natural' is healthy
Ham said to keep in mind when working animals that they're "very simple creatures that function mainly by instinct and/or certain learned behaviors."
Simple but intuitive. They read man's body language like a book, and the signal they get invariably determines whether they're doing what they're doing in an unhealthy survival mode or still in their so-called "natural state."
"When working with animals we must be careful to leave the survival instinct dormant," Ham says. "At no time do we want them to feel they have to survive while we are working with them." Survival mode means stress, and stress translates into sickness or poor weight gains, even death.
Though natural stockmanship doesn't eliminate sickness or poor weight gain or death, Ham says it can help reduce their causes by helping livestock remain in their natural state.
"If our reason for owning animals is to make a profit, then we need them to perform to their maximum genetic potential. This means they must remain in their natural state as much as possible." When force and fear are used to move or work cattle, stress results, and it destroys the animal's immune system, interrupts the females' estrus cycle, and causes death in calves.
"This in mind," asks Ham, "does using fear and force really work? Not really, when we consider the long-term results. We have a much higher goal than just 'getting the work done.'"