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Want to improve livestock production? It may be time to update your behaviors around cattle and other animals

Effective stockmanship isn't anything touchy-feely, says Dr. Ron Gill of Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. It's about improving your livestock's production by keeping them calm and safe. And that, says Jerry Yate of West Virginia University, also helps assure consumers that animal agriculture is selling a product that has received proper care.

Two men in cowboy hats sit astride horses behind a group of black cattle.
Curt Pate and Dr. Roy Gill demonstrate cattle handling techniques at the North Dakota Stockmen's Association Convention on Sept. 22, 2022, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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BISMARCK, N.D. — If there is one thing cattle are notorious for, it's that they don't think or behave like humans.

Humans would likely expect cattle to move away from them if they try to drive them from behind, partially because if a human was being chased, he'd move away from the source of the pressure. Because of that logic, people handling cattle often push cattle from the back.

But cattle simply aren't humans. And learning about the innate behaviors of cattle can help humans more effectively work with cattle.

A sign reading, "Cattlemen's Education Series Stockmanship & Cattle-Handling Workshop" and listing multiple sponsors hangs from a cattle panel. In the distance are a pen of black cattle.
The Cattlemen's Education Series is paid for, in large part, by beef checkoff funds through the North Dakota Beef Commission.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

The Cattlemen's Education Series at the North Dakota Stockmen's Association convention, held Sept. 22-24 in Bismarck, included an opening day session on cattle handling. The session featured Ron Gill, professor and Extension livestock specialist for Texas A&M, Jerry Yates, farm manager of West Virginia University's Reymann Memorial Research and Education Outreach Center, Curt Pate, a Montana rancher and cattle handling expert, and Lisa Pederson, North Dakota State University Extension livestock specialist at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center. The seminar was funded in large part by beef checkoff funds through the North Dakota Beef Commission, Pederson said.

A man sits on a horse to the side of a group of black cattle.
Dr. Ron Gill of Texas A&M Agrilife Extension demonstrates how positioning and applying pressure in the right way can make cattle handling easier. Photo taken Sept. 22, 2022, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

The techniques taught at the session, Gill said, were about learning how cattle think so that cattle producers can "get them to work the way we want them to work." He calls the techniques demonstrated "effective stockmanship" rather than low-stress handling. It's nothing "touchy-feely," he said.

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"We're not talking about being slow and gentle, necessarily," he said. "It's about using the right amount of pressure at the right time to get the right result."

The reasons to change the way cattle are handled are multifaceted, the presenters said. Gill pointed out it's "one of the few things to improve productivity on any type of cattle operation without having to spend money."

Cattle that are handled effectively are less stressed, he said. That impacts gain, death loss and reproduction.

"It pays off in added performance, reduced sickness, improved reproductive performance in breeding cattle in an (artificial insemination) program," Gill said. "Everything that we get paid on we can improve if we handle the cattle better."

A man in a baseball cap and a blue and gold windbreaker holds a microphone and appears to be talking while standing in the midst of cattle panels.
Jerry Yates of West Virginia University told attendees of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association Convention's Cattlemen's Education Series seminar on cattle handling that proper care of animals is considered a necessity by consumers. Photo taken Sept. 22, 2022, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

And producers' bottom lines don't just come from improving performance, Yates said. It's also about consumer desires.

"The consumer is who we work for, and without the consumer, we don't have a market for our product and we won't be in business," he said.

Yates explained that today's consumers want to know how animals were raised and want assurances that livestock were treated humanely. It's not about people having a problem eating meat, he said.

"They just want to know they've been treated right, raised with care and raised the right way," Yates said.

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The Beef Quality Assurance program is an important link between those consumer needs and the producer, he said. Producers should consider becoming BQA certified and follow the program's guidelines as a way to ensure consumers' needs are at the forefront. Then, producers need to tell their stories.

"Tell people what you do and how proud you are of the product," he said.

The right pressure

Two men astride horses talk to a group of people.
Curt Pate, a Montana cattle handling expert, and Dr. Ron Gill of Texas A&M University Agrilife Extension, demonstrated cattle handling techniques at the North Dakota Stockmen's Association Convention's Cattlemen's Education Series on Sept. 22, 2022, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

Yates told the crowd at the seminar, held at Walt Neuen's Horse Arena on the southwest edge of Bismarck, that livestock is a universal language. Livestock behave the same and have the same characteristics and problems no matter where in the world they are.

Gill and Pate, on horseback, showed how to put the right kind of pressure on cattle to get them to move and act in a manner conducive to efficient handling.

Two men on horseback move cattle in a pen.
Cattle handle better when they can see where pressure is coming from, Curt Pate and Dr. Ron Gill told attendees at the North Dakota Stockmen's Association's Cattlemen's Education Series seminar on cattle handling on Sept. 22, 2022, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

That, Gill said, includes not pushing cattle from behind.

"They have to be able to see us and feel our pressure," he said.

That makes cattle feel safe, he said. It's also important that they have a place to go to release pressure. In an alleyway situation, Gill said pushing from behind gives cattle nowhere to go willingly, and they end up trying to turn back. Working them side to side allows them to see the pressure and have a place to go.

Being visible to cattle is easier on horseback, he said, but carrying a flag can help when working cattle on foot.

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Pate said some cattle like and are used to the presence of horses and may be difficult to work on foot, and some cattle are used to being moved by a person on foot and may not like the presence of a horse. In any situation, he said it's important to get cattle to trust you. Otherwise, they will take evasive actions and do things like hide sickness, which ultimately can hurt productivity.

A man on horseback looks at a group of black cattle.
Dr. Ron Gill of Texas A&M University Agrilife Extension says changing human behavior may be the hardest part of implementing effective stockmanship techniques. Photo taken Sept. 22, 2022, in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

Gill said effective stockmanship is about changing human behaviors.

"That seems to be the hardest thing," he said.

The bottom line? If the cattle aren't working right, it's up to the humans "to figure out what we're doing wrong," Gill said.

Related Topics: CATTLELIVESTOCKNORTH DAKOTA
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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