Give up the chase — things you need to know about livestock handling

Cattle are quick learners — so earn their trust 
by not adding to their fears, says handling expert Dylan Biggs

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Want to handle cattle more effectively? Then curb your instincts.

“A lot of what we struggle with when it comes to working livestock is just human nature,” Hanna rancher and handling expert Dylan Biggs told attendees at the recent Western Canadian Grazing Conference.

Livestock are prey animals and humans are predators. So we follow our instinct to chase stock that has veered or run off instead of holding tight and waiting for the stock to return on their own, said Biggs, who has been teaching his handling methods for two decades. Ditto when an animal gets near a gate — humans push harder to get them through instead of allowing them to go at their own pace.

“Movement is something that humans start, but if you get good movement, it goes on its own and then humans can just go along with it,” said Biggs.

In general, humans should focus their movement perpendicular to the movement of travel. If a rancher wants their cattle to move forward, he or she can push behind gently by moving back and forth perpendicular to the cow or group of cattle.

Cattle, like humans, need to be taught things. It’s absurd to approach a group of calves or yearlings and expect the animals to know what to do, he said. That’s why it’s important that ranchers should first get cattle used to being around them and build a degree of trust. Cattle need to know that they won’t be chased or forced to move, and if they turn and walk, the rancher will walk with them and remain calm, said Biggs, adding training is a process, not an event.

“When you’re around your cattle — every time you’re around them — you need to teach them to be more responsive, more at ease and more comfortable,” he said.

Rough handling just increases their fear and makes things more difficult.

“You might spend more time getting an animal through a gate if you go calmly and quietly, but it will probably be easier next time,” said Biggs.

When training yearlings, a stockperson should be prepared to let them run off and then come back. After five or six times of running off, the animals will be calmer, and won’t run away as fast or as far. Then the stockperson can get to the side of the group and walk with them.

When stock is manageable, a rancher can stop and start them, and can get them to turn right or left, slow or stop.

People who are dealing with animals they haven’t handled from birth have more of a challenge, and need to be more accommodating, he said. Some groups of cattle, and some breeds are harder to handle than others.

Biggs classifies unmanageable stock as cattle that are too wild, or so tame that they have no flight zone and won’t move when pressured.

Chasing animals is one of the worst things a rancher can do.

“Most cattle suffer from too much fear, and we reinforce that when we chase. They’re prey and we’re behaving like predators,” he said.

One of the best positions for ranchers trying to move cattle is to stay out to the side and apply lateral pressure. When trying to get an animal to turn, the rancher can apply pressure to the side of the head rather than the shoulder. This will result in a nice, soft, controlled turn, not a panicked one.

Ranchers also need to think defensively and watch the cues of the animals.

It’s against human nature, but it doesn’t make sense to speed an animal up and then demand that they stop. Animals will signal their desire to move or turn by moving their ears before their feet. When an animal wants to turn to the right, it will cock its ear and look to the right before its feet move, said Biggs. If the rancher moves to the right, when the ear cocks, the animal will often see that and straighten itself out.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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