How to Approach Cattle

by Whit Hibbard

In prior columns, I’ve made the case for low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as an essential component of operating sustainable and profitable livestock operations. In previous issues, I reviewed the program’s foundational elements (i.e., mindset, attitude, reading, working, and preparing animals), introduced 12 basic principles, nine techniques and eight common misconceptions. Understanding all these things is fundamental to practical applications of LSLH.

In order to offer practical applications, we need to talk about driving first. “Driving” refers to the active process of initiating and maintaining movement in livestock.

Just about everything we do with our cows comes down to driving–whether to summer pasture or back, into the corral, up the alley, onto the scale, through the crowd pen and up the chute, or onto a truck.

First, we need to talk about two vitally important but generally overlooked prerequisites: “approaching” and “starting.” According to Bud Williams, the originator of the LSLH method who died in 2012, the first point of contact is critical. “Most mistakes are made here,” he said. “Mistakes made here are the worst; they can negatively influence the whole day.”

When most cowboys go out to move cattle they don’t give any thought to how to properly approach them; before I met Bud I didn’t either.

Usually, we rush right out there and approach them head on, often with arm waving and yelling, or sic the dogs on them, but that’s a mistake. According to Bud: “You need to approach properly, so you’re not a threat. Animals can’t handle the emotional part of something coming directly at them to start them.” Why? Because that’s what predators naturally do; they attack straight on.

“If we start directly toward an animal, as soon as it starts to feel pressure and we keep coming with that pressure, we get that animal very uneasy, upset, even mad; emotions we don’t want,” Bud said.

Something else that makes prey animals uncomfortable is when a predator circles them. Bud asks us to imagine a car curving toward us at a high rate of speed. How does that make us feel?  Now, compare that to how we feel if that same car is coming in a straight line, but is clearly going to miss us. Obviously, in the first instance, we feel unsettled, even threatened, and it might bother us the rest of the day, whereas, in the second instance, we can calculate the car’s trajectory and see that it is going to miss us, so we can relax.

“So it wasn’t the car that was bothering you,” Bud observed, “it was its angle of approach, whether it was headed directly at you or whether it would just go past you. So when you approach animals to start them, you want to make sure that the animal does not feel that you are coming directly at it.”

You need to approach properly so you’re not a threat. Animals can’t handle the emotional part of something coming directly at them.

Consequently, it’s important not to march straight toward our cattle. Rather, once we get close enough that we might be about to intersect their pressure zone, we need to change our approach to a straight-line oblique angle so the animals think we are going to go on by. The person on the right is not going directly toward these cows and calves; rather, he is approaching at a straight-line oblique angle which allows the animals to remain comfortable and not feel threatened. This is important, even with domestic older cows.

This approach is especially important for very sensitive animals or ones that don’t know us, like newly acquired cattle or custom-grazed stockers. These animals first need to discover it is okay for us to be around them. Bud advised us to stay quietly outside of their pressure zone to give them time to size us up, gauge our intentions and show them we aren’t aggressive and won’t do anything that bothers them. We just wait and let them get used to us being there and relax before progressing.

When the stock are comfortable with us being around–which might only take a few minutes–we can then approach in the straight-lined oblique angle until we intersect their pressure zone.

How do we know we are in their pressure zone? We know it when they first take notice of us and are concerned about our presence. At that point, it’s important to release pressure by stopping or veering away a little (i.e., changing our angle) before they move off. If the stock get nervous–even one animal—we need to release pressure so they learn that every pressure has a release and they don’t have to bolt to get that release.

So, we approach only to where we feel the animals will move (a signal might be as simple as a head raising up and then release pressure. This lets them know that we only want to get that close and won’t keep coming if it bothers them. Then, we watch for a relaxed look and posture before approaching closer. If we don’t do this, wilder cattle might run off to get the release, or cows might feel over-pressured and leave their calves. We need to read the signs the cattle are exhibiting and adjust accordingly before that happens.

Once we’ve made our approach, found the animals’ pressure zone, and they are comfortable with our presence, we can start them.

Source: Drovers August 2016

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