JEROME, Idaho — Fourth-generation Montana rancher Whit Hibbard worked livestock for nearly 40 years before he was introduced to low-stress handling.
It took him that long to understand the way he had handled livestock had a cost. And he was slow to put that together because he never got a bill for the losses incurred from bad handling, he told ranchers at his stockmanship school sponsored by University of Idaho Extension.
It finally dawned on him the operation was “leaving money on the ground” through shrink caused by improper handling, and it sent him looking for answers.
He found them at a stockmanship clinic developed by Bud Williams, a maverick in low-stress livestock handling. Williams’ methods and principles were simple — but they were also eye-opening and impressively effective, and Hibbard became a convert.
“I drank the Kool-Aid,” he said.
What it all came down to was conventional stockmanship’s failure to communicate with animals, he said.
“If we do, they will do what we want willingly,” he said.
With Williams’ techniques, there’s no need for hollering or cattle prods. It’s better for the animals, the handlers, the operation and the bottom line, he said.
Calmer is better
“The best way to be efficient is handling cattle so they’re calm,” he said.
Handling affects cattle performance in weight gain, conception rates, immune function, carcass quality and milk production, he said.
“We all know the profit margin in our industry is so thin. We need to do all we can to take advantage of any improvement,” he said.
“Low stress is faster and more cost effective. We get generally more work done in much less time with fewer people and less stress on animals and us, and we enjoy it,” he said.
Low-stress handling also mitigates the safety risks for animals and humans and has a positive impact on public perception, employee turnover, a ranching family’s quality of life and whether the next generation wants to stay on the ranch, he said.
“In our conventional days, handling cattle was anything but fun. It got to a point where I didn’t want to ranch anymore because cattle handling was so stressful. Now it’s a fun place to work because we enjoy working on cattle,” he said.
Low-stress handling offers a different and better way. Even a modest understanding of the principles and techniques can bring profound changes, both to the bottom line and quality of life, he said.
“It doesn’t cost anything; it’s just a change of mindset and behavior,” he said.
Hibbard’s videos contrasting low-stress handling with conventional handling are vastly different.
The videos of conventional handling are action-packed, adrenalin-filled, full of commotion and chaos, loud and anxiety-ridden. Numerous handlers are yelling, waving hands and flags, wielding prods, cracking whips and using brute strength to force distressed cattle to move. Cattle are reacting dangerously, and near wrecks are rampant.
The videos of low-stress handling are calm and quiet, smooth and effective, with cattle responding willingly to the low-key movement of one or two silent handlers.
The techniques work, and they’re really effective, Hibbard said.
“It’s easy to do; the difference is just doing it,” he said.
It starts with knowing the fundamental truths, or propensities, that serve as the foundation of animal behavior, he said.
First and foremost is keeping animals in a normal frame of mind. Cattle are so mishandled in conventional stockmanship that the one thing they’re thinking is survival. They are reacting instead of responding, and unfortunately that’s the status quo, he said.
“Those animals are very difficult to handle; they just want to get the hell away from us,” he said.
Forcing them to do something they don’t want to do or aren’t ready to do makes them unhappy, confused and stressed. Ranchers need to set up every situation so their idea becomes the animal’s idea and the animal is willing to do what the handler wants, he said.
That means applying pressure, which animals want to avoid, by being in the right position or moving in the right direction in relationship to the animal’s pressure zone and then releasing that pressure. It also means staying out of their flight zone, he said.
“If we violate any or all of those principles, we end up with an animal in panic mode just wanting to get away,” he said.
The wrong things make it difficult, and the right things make it easy, he said.
“Those principles really deal with an animal’s psychology,” he said.
The next set of principles deal with social structure, he said.
Animals want to be in a herd, move in the direction they’re headed and follow other animals, and good movement draws good movement to it, he said.
Handlers can really use that social structure to their advantage in gathering and trailing. But if they violate any of the principles, they’ll end up chasing cattle, trying to head them off or causing a classic runback, he said.
The next set of principles addresses the natural tendencies of cattle. They want to see what’s pressuring them, just like people. They want to see where the handler wants them to go, and they want to go past or around the handler. Under excess pressure, they want to go back where they came from, he said.
12 basic principles
Basic principles to guide low-stress livestock handling.
1. Keep animals in a normal frame of mind.
2. Animals should not be forced to do anything they don’t want to or are not ready to do.
3. Set up every situation so the handler’s idea becomes the animal’s idea.
4. Animals want to avoid pressure, and they want to experience release from pressure.
5. Animals want to be in a herd.
6. Animals want to move in the direction they’re headed.
7. Animals want to follow other animals.
8. Good movement attracts other movement to it.
9. Animals want to see what’s pressuring them.
10. Animals want to see where handlers want them to go.
11. Animals want to go by or around handlers.
12. Under excess pressure, animals want to go back where they came from.
Source: Whit Hibbard, based on the teachings of Bud Williams