Watching Curt Pate work cattle is like watching a child tugging at a kite string on a windy day. At first, it seems he can’t possibly control the wild movement of this unpredictable thing he’s trying to direct. But soon enough, he has everything well in hand.
When he approaches the small herd from the left, the cattle move right — exactly where he intended them to go. He moves right, the cattle veer left. When he runs, they run, and stop when he does — all the while watching this stranger intently for their next cue.
The trick, he says, is pressure.
“It is possible to completely change the way an animal thinks and feels and works off our pressure,” said the Montana native at a recent workshop in Okotoks.
“Animal handling can make a big difference in the way animals respond to us.”
Cattle handlers sometimes confuse stress and pressure, he said. Low-stress cattle handling is not the same as no-pressure cattle handling.
“If you don’t put enough pressure on an animal and you’ve got to get him into a crowd of people, you can do all the low-stress handling you want and you’re going to fail. It’s got to be effective pressure.”
Experienced stockmen create the right amount of pressure by understanding how their position affects a cow’s movement and responding accordingly.
“Working with stock is all about doing something that you think is right and then readjusting to where the cow tells you to be.”
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Getting the point
Finding the right position comes down to the “balance point” just behind a cow’s elbow, said Pate. Moving behind the balance point will cause the cow to go forward, while moving in front of it will cause the cow to stop or turn away.
But the balance point is different in every situation.
“In a perfect vacuum world, that’s where it’s at, right behind the elbow. But in the real world, it’s always changing. And a stockman knows to change to fit the situation.”
Instead of thinking about the balance point, producers should think about the “focus point.”
“The farther back I get behind the cow’s tail, the less focus I’m going to have, and she wants to see me in clear focus.”
A cow will turn her head to watch whoever is causing her stress, and where her nose turns, she follows.
“If you want to put a cow in that red gate, if you can keep that animal’s nose pointed toward that red gate and keep it moving forward, you’re going to get it through the gate.”
In some cases, though, the cow will flee — a result of entering the flight zone.
“If you penetrate the flight zone, the animal runs away. But we don’t want those animals running away. We want them to walk away,” he said.
“If you penetrate the flight zone and they flee, you’ve done too much.”
Pate calls it the “pressure zone,” which he describes as “how close you are to that animal to get her to respond.”
Cattle handlers can adjust their pressure by observing what the animal did just before she fled.
“It’s what happened before it happened that made it happen,” he said, drawing on an old saying.
“If you just march in on them and yell and send the dog and hit them, you’re going to increase the flight zone. But if you walk in and, as they look at you, you step back, you’ll draw their mind, and pretty soon, you’ll be able to work those animals from a reasonable distance.”
Like all animals, cattle have two parts of their brain: the thinking side and the reacting side, said Pate.
“When there’s more pressure, that brain switches from the thinking side to the reacting side. All they’re doing is reacting to that pressure to get the heck out of there so they can get back to thinking about what to do.”
The shift from thinking mode to survival mode creates stress in the animal, negatively impacting the cow’s health, productivity, and welfare. Effective stockmanship reduces some of these effects — which is ultimately better for the bottom line.
“Stockmanship is about working with animals in a way that maximizes our forage use and our profit, plus quality of life,” said Pate.
“Stress on cattle is hard to judge. But if we can keep the pressure or the stress off these cattle, they’ll be a lot better for it.”