Let’s be honest, handling animals can be stressful for both the human and the animal, and it doesn’t always end well. Valuable time can be lost in the process and it can often be dangerous, in terms of loading a trailer for shipping or chute for doctoring, sending the cows to the parlor, or moving sheep from one pasture to the next. There is ample opportunity for situations to turn for the worse and for us to be left scratching our heads wondering, where did we go wrong? Before you know it, handling your animals has become a consistently negative experience for all parties involved.
Although poor livestock handling can induce serious headaches and disheartened efforts, financial and welfare implications are just as disadvantageous. For the producer, a stressed animal means loss of revenue, be it in the form of lower conception rates, loss in meat quality, decrease in milk yields, and impaired immune function. Not to mention, in a society of meat, milk, and cheese eating enthusiasts, animal welfare has recently become a top consideration for the direction of customer’s purchases. Due to this shift, producers are beginning to think about how they can utilize this as a marketing advantage to benefit their business profit, killing two birds with one stone.
A technique that has brought economic and marketing success to producers is low-stress livestock handling (LSLH). Father of the LSLH method is a stockman from Oregon, Bud Williams. He spent his life helping ranchers and farmers develop their attitudes so that they could better handle their cattle, resulting in smoother and more productive operations. LSLH educates farmers how to act in response to the animal’s actions, not react. It’s the proper application of pressure at the proper angle and time so that communication is clear and consistent between the handler and the animal.
So, where to begin? It can’t all possibly be covered in one sitting, but here are a few key components to consider when beginning to understand and implement low-stress handling.
1. The livestock are never wrong.
This involves an attitude shift on the part of the handler. Sometimes it’s tough to not blame it all on the animal, but we have to remember that they act purely on survival instincts. Livestock do not have the ability to learn our language, so it’s up to us to learn theirs. We have to “tell” the livestock through proper pressure and allow them to do what we intend, by making our idea their idea.
2. Slow down and be quiet.
Be sure to allow for plenty of time when handling animals. It’s natural to desire quicker results if you are in a time constraint, but it’s imperative to move slow and be patient. That being said, don’t confuse low-stress with “slow-stress”. Moving at snail’s pace and still trying to force the animal into doing what you want isn’t any less stressful for them. Livestock have very sensitive hearing. They can hear you at a whisper, so there is no need to yell. The high frequencies will stress and scare them.
3. See the environment from their perspective.
Where are the blind spots, holes, and shadows that may distract them from moving? These are hindrances that will bottleneck a chute or keep the herd from entering a new field or pasture
4. Be aware of your position.
Understand where the livestock’s flight zone and pressure zones are and how your positioning affects them. You want to work in and out of the pressure zone, but stay out of the flight zone. Cattle and horses, for example, cannot see directly behind them. Therefore you don’t want to drive them straight from behind, as this will create stress. Work them from the sides and the front as much as possible. Most animals do not like curved lines, as prey animals, predators typically circle them. Keep lines straight.
5. Where there is pressure, there must also be release.
This is very important, especially when handling new or young livestock. This will be your future herd, so start off on a good note. Making sure that there is a release is almost more important than applying the pressure. A release might be as simple as you shifting your weight backwards after telling the animal to move forward. It will teach them where to be and not to be when they are around you, and it will give them confidence that you aren’t going to chase them all over Timbuktu.
6. Create good movement, and keep it going.
As a result of proper pressure and release, you will get movement. You are teaching the animal what good movement feels like. With good movement your animals will go where you want them to go and the will stay where you put them. If they have a moment of joy, and go bucking across a field, direct the movement instead of shutting it down.
7. Observe, remember, and compare.
This type of handling is not necessarily common sense and certainly won’t become habit overnight. Take the time to observe, study, and understand the natural behavior of the livestock species you intend to work with. LSLH will teach you to be more observant and in tune with the animals instincts, and in turn handling will go much smoother and cause significantly less stress for the animal, and yourself.
Ben Barlett and Janice Swanson, Low-stress Cattle Handling: The Basics, Michigan State University
Tom Curtin, Quality Stockmanship Clinic, October 2016
Temple Grandin, Behavioral Principles of Livestock Handling, Colorado State University
Steve Tonn, Low Stress Livestock Handling For People and Livestock, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension
Bud Williams Schools, Teaching Low Stress Livestock Handling Methods and Marketing Strategies.