Published Apr 3, 2013

Stockmanship Workshop: Can you park a cow?

By Margaret Chamas

Though the crowd was small, it was mighty, and became mightier as the day wore on.  Twelve livestock farmers gathered near Exira to learn proper stockmanship from Richard McConnell and Tina Williams of Hand ‘n Hand Livestock Solutions.  The couple is continuing the legacy of Tina’s late father, Bud Williams, a legendary livestock handler.

Over the course of the two-day workshop, Richard and Tina instructed the group on how to “read” livestock and maneuver oneself, to get the animals to go where directed.  The idea is to “let them, don’t make them.”  A person’s attitude shows in their movement and stance, and is detected by livestock.  Armed with the right mentality and knowledge, it’s possible to secure the trust of the animals and to get them to do what they’re asked to.  Richard and Tina shared stories and videos of Bud’s work, detailing what was being done and showing the audience how to work with livestock to obtain the same results.  Who doesn’t want to be able to be able to sort nearly a hundred cows and their calves, vaccinate, and treat them…by themselves?

Proper stockmanship not only eases the movement of cattle between pastures or through a handling facility, it makes the animals happier.  Richard and Tina buy cheap newly-weaned calves at the local auction.  These animals are considered high-risk because of all the recent stresses they’ve experienced, and typically have a high mortality rate.  But these folks bring them home, work them in Bud’s style while they finish weaning, and then return them to the sale barn a few weeks later at an average profit of $10/head.

Two days of lectures, diagrams, and videos can’t be summed up in a blog post.  But some of the recurring themes are:

  • Pressure – know how to apply it, when to apply it, and when to back off.  Moving towards an animal puts pressure on it.  If applied properly, the animal will move in the direction you want; at this point, you back off.  Let the animal know that it will be released from pressure if it does what you tell it.  Train animals to all accept the same amount of pressure – there are always some more flighty than others.  Work with them all the same and keep working until they stick together as a group.
  • Walking back and forth behind a group of animals will cause them to move ahead calmly.  Zigzagging up towards the animals will continue this movement.  Merely coming straight towards them will cause them to scatter, but the back and forth pattern both applies and releases pressure.
  • Always work in straight lines – predators will make curves around prey.  When you walk in a straight line, the livestock know where you’re going and will not react as fearfully.
  • Communication – your attitude affects your body language and position, which will be noted by the animals.  Don’t let your frustration turn you into a predator or a threat in their eyes.
  • Properly handled cattle move because you’re asking them to – not because they’re afraid of being caught, and not because they think they’re going to fresh grass.  If you’re moving cattle to a new paddock, drive them away from the gate a few times; make sure they’re paying attention to you before you take them anywhere.  Experienced handlers like Richard, Tina, and of course Bud can move cattle to an area of pasture and leave them there.  An hour or even a day later, the cattle will still be there.  They trust the humans and are content to stay where they were parked.  As long as they are moved to new pasture before they run out, they will remain confident that their caretaker will keep them safe.

So how does a farmer get started with stockmanship?  The best choice would be to attend one of Richard and Tina’s workshops, to get the full experience.  But some general guidelines are below.

  • Understand livestock instincts – they want to see what is pressuring them so will turn around if you come at them from behind.  If they’re moving however, they prefer to continue going in the direction they’re headed, and will want to follow each other.  While it seems counterintuitive, they prefer to go around or by people – so that they can keep an eye on them.  They also will go back to where they came from if given the chance, since that was the last place they were safe.  Thus it’s important to employ the back and forth walking pattern, so that the animals don’t have to turn much to look at you (and then don’t decide to run past you to get back to their old spot).  In fact, if an animal turns to look at you, you’re too far back – either move to the side so it can see you without turning, or move closer so it knows you’re working with it.
  • Avoid using your arms, poles, sticks, hats, etc. to gain animals’ attention.  And avoid using your voice.  While calling cattle is a fine practice, it’s not as useful as being able to drive them.
  • Spend time driving the animals at first, rather than spending time chasing them later.  When starting with a new group of cattle, Richard recommends an hour of work a day, broken into segments no more than 20 minutes long.  At first, just make sure the livestock know you’re not a threat, and let them experience you applying and rel;easing pressure.  Later on, you’ll direct this pressure and they’ll learn that pressure will be released either by you or them walking away.  Once this occurs, you can teach them to start and stop, to turn, and to stay where parked.

More specific topics covered were pen and facility design, moving cattle on roads, working with new cattle, weaning, loading and unloading, and sorting stock.  In addition to the examples and general methods in the lecture, Richard and Tina helped with attendees’ specific issues – lagging cows that wouldn’t keep up with the herd, spooky cows that would run away uncontrolled, the challenges of keeping cattle out of neighbors’ yards while moving, and others.

The Hand ‘n Hand method of working livestock is not some claim to “talk” to animals or telepathically “tell” them what to do.  It’s common sense and observation of animal and human behavior, and integration of those behaviors to form a working partnership.  Calm, smooth handling like was discussed does not mean it’s slow either.  The “stressfulness” of handling is the end result of the stockmanship used – not the method of stockmanship used.  What you do with the animals can create or reduce stress, even if the end result (moving them to a new pasture, say) is the same.  Moving them to a new pasture is not stressful in and of itself, just how you do it.  The concept was summed up nicely by a participant of an earlier workshop: “Keep your hat on your head, your hands in your pockets, and your mouth shut!”

Participants at the Hand 'n Hand Livestock Solutions stockmanship class