NEW TOWN, N.D. The crowd that filling the conference room at Fort Berthold Community College Feb. 8 represented nearly every segment of the cattle industry. Middle-aged ranchers and their wives shared tables with longtime cattlemen, some of whom ...

NEW TOWN, N.D. The crowd that filling the conference room at Fort Berthold Community College Feb. 8 represented nearly every segment of the cattle industry. Middle-aged ranchers and their wives shared tables with longtime cattlemen, some of whom brought their children or grandchildren to hear about low-stress livestock handling.

"The amount of people who signed up surpassed my expectations," said NDSU extension agent Elayne Hovde, who organized the seminar. "I expected about 10 people to come, but we had over 90 who registered."

They came to hear Dr. Tom

Noffsinger, a Benkelman, Neb., veterinarian who also operates a 90,000-head beef cattle management operation. Noffsinger says he first heard about low-stress cattle management from Bud Williams, a native of Oregon who now lives in Texas. Williams once managed a feedyard in northern Canada, in conditions most producers would consider too extreme for successful cattle production.

"I'm not an expert by any means. The things I'm going to share with you are the genius of Bud Williams," Noffsinger says modestly.


"What we're teaching is to raise our powers of observation and to give you the confidence to observe what's happening with your cattle. And if you see something, to intervene."

Understanding instincts

His seminar included suggestions for changing a wide variety of specific ranching techniques, but Noffsinger's overall message is that handlers must understand the instincts and physiological responses that affect bovine behavior and health.

In today's mass-produced, commercially designed livestock production, he says handlers and managers alike have forgotten that cattle are hard-wired to react to situations as potential prey.

As a result, he says, when cattle are in a situation they perceive as threatening, they will conceal weaknesses, such as illness or injury, for as long as possible, sometimes until they fall over dead.

"We have to convince cattle, and horses for that matter, that we are not a predator," he says. He thinks it begins with the way we approach the animals. Handlers moving in circles, or curved patterns, appear wolflike to cattle. Walking straight toward a herd isn't any better.

Cattle's eyes are set on the sides of their heads, providing excellent peripheral vision, but restricting depth perception. A person approaching from the front is frightening because it's hard for the animal to know how fast they're approaching.

"Standing still also drives cattle crazy," Noffsinger adds.


He advisers handlers, whether on foot or on horseback, to move smoothly from side to side, allowing the animals to size them up and feel comfortable with their rate of approach.

He also discourages speaking to cattle.

"There's really no reason to talk to them because the human voice is actually stressful to cattle. I guess what we're talking about here is overriding some of your instincts."

Pressure and release

To move a group of cattle, Noffsinger recommends using "pressure and release." Rather than chasing animals around a pen, which causes stress, he suggests using cattle's natural tendency to move as a herd, applying pressure to initiate motion.

Video clips of cattle movement within a pen or pasture show the group tends to follow a lead animal or animals. Once the direction is set, the rest of the herd tends to flow behind. Handlers who apply appropriate pressure to those lead animals can expect the rest of the herd to follow willingly.

Noffsinger equates it to moving a chain, not by pushing but by pulling, allowing the lead animal or animals to set the group in motion. Again, the notion runs contrary to popular belief. While many handlers instinctively try to move a herd from the rear, the animals bunched at the back of the group are the most timid and likely to bolt. Noffsinger says the most intelligent, capable cattle usually are found at the front of the herd, and they're the ones most likely to lead the group in an orderly fashion.

When applying that pressure to the group, he says there is an important protocol to be followed. Cattle manners, so to speak.


First, the handler must be recognized by the animals, a process Noffsinger calls "saying hello." As pressure is applied, the animal is encouraged to begin moving in the appropriate direction, and once that motion begins, Noffsinger says it is important to "thank" the animal by removing the pressure. The handler quietly walks alongside the animal, which will continue to move in a straight line until something obstructs its path.

Pen riders

These same rules apply to pen riders on horseback. Unlike the cowboy movie stereotype of wranglers galloping headlong toward a herd of cattle, Noffsinger says successful handlers usually walk their horses with the herd. He admits that, to some owners, this may look like a lack of work, but he says what's important is that the herd is learning to do what it is asked to do.

The slower pace of cattle movement means less emphasis on galloping horsemanship. In fact, Noffsinger says the most important skill a rider will use is the slow back step.

Once the herd is moving, there are subtle ways to control traffic speed. Moving against the flow of cattle will prompt them to move faster. Traveling alongside the herd at close range will make them move faster. Moving parallel to the group from farther away will cause them to slow down. With two riders, one can encourage one side of the group to move faster, while the other allows them to slow down, gradually turning the herd.

Noffsinger says the techniques can be applied one on one to "initiators," cattle within the herd who can create panic, and often engage in "bullering."

It's important to note that just a handful of these initiators are controlling the actions of an entire herd.

"They don't all want to act like idiots," Noffsinger laughs.


By encouraging herd behavior that is focused and predictable, cattle within the group are more confident and less sensitive to the antics of the initiators.

If an entire herd appears to be stressed in a certain pen, their disposition may be improved by leading them out of that pen and returning to the same site a short time later.

"Cattle feel comfortable returning to a place they know," Noffsinger says. He has video clips to back up his belief.

The video shows cattle moving quickly and quietly from their pen, down an alley and into a nearby open space. Minutes later, the cattle are re-directed back down the alley, and as they approach the pen's gate, several animals bound through, all four legs in the air at the same time.

"That's not 'bullering,' that's exuberance!" he exclaims. "That's what healthy cattle look like, and that means you're doing your job."

The importance of bonding

The process of raising healthy, even-tempered cattle begins at birth, says

Noffsinger, who states, "birthing and weaning are the two biggest days for a calf." Although he thinks cattle, in general, are a forgiving species, he says they'll be even easier to work with if treated correctly from day one.


"That baby will never forget, and that investment will pay you back forever," he affirms, adding that a well-handled mother usually produces a calf that is easy to handle.

Noffsinger is critical of the practice of pairing off calves with replacement mothers and even suggests that tagging during the first few days of a calf's life is an unnecessary hardship on the animal.

"And when I do tag him, I'm going to let that calf catch me, I'm not going to catch that calf."

Just like the major stress that humans feel when they change their address or suffer a loss, Noffsinger says cattle will experience elevated heart rates and increased adrenaline and cortisone levels when sent to an unfamiliar place.

He recommends surrounding cattle with familiar companions and strongly suggests allowing newborns to remain with their mothers, reducing stress and encouraging more frequent suckling. This provides them with more colostrum, boosting their immune systems and protecting them from future stress.

Noffsinger thinks a mother and calf should be constant close contact, not just finding each other twice a day, as often happens in commercial production settings. If a threat appears or it's time for the herd to move, the first thing the mother should do is look for her calf.

He thinks it is easier for cattle to forget that instinct when large numbers are penned together in close quarters. And unless weather conditions are dangerous, he says cattle prefer open spaces, because "sometimes environmental hardships are less stressful than confinement."

The value of happiness


"Cattle are easier to train than people or dogs," Noffsinger explains, "mostly because we're asking them to do simple things."

In a well-trained herd with a trusted handler, Noffsinger says cattle will act as nature intended, moving when prompted and staying together even in unconfined places.

"Once you do this, they'll graze as a herd," he marvels. "You can place them in a part of the pasture and they'll stay there. I used to turn out cattle and they'd scatter like quail, and it would take me all day to check on 'em."

Using Williams' techniques, Noffsinger says it is possible to rotation graze herds without fences, and they won't have to be pushed to the feed bunk or water tank. Stress-free feeding, in turn, seems to produce better beef at market time.

"I know of a ranch where, last year, they were able to slaughter their animals 60 days earlier, with calving dates staying the same," Noffsinger says. "And instead of dark cutters, they had heavyweight carcasses.

"Their death loss went from 7 percent to 1 percent, and their treatment rates went from about 45 percent to 6 percent. If everyone works together, the bottomline will smile."

Health impacts

As a veterinarian, Noffsinger says he's certain of the correlation between cattle stress and the interruption of the marbling process in meat. He sees the same correlation between effective cattle handling and the efficacy of vaccines and nutrition. In fact, that's what prompted him to study the techniques more carefully.

"My motivation was to explain some of my failures, some of the vaccine failures I've seen and some of the lack of response to treatment. We're losing more cattle today than we did 10 years ago in feedlots, despite vaccines and antibiotics."

He cites results from a study comparing genetically similar cattle, sent to feedlots in the same geographical area, fed the same No. 2 corn and treated with the same vaccination program. In that study, there were remarkable differences in the health and growth rates at the two facilities, which Noffsinger thinks may be because of cattle handling techniques.

"We found huge potential for interaction between humans and cattle to have a positive or negative impact," he says, adding that the first experience an animal has at a new facility may make the biggest impression.

"The person who unloads the truck is the most important person at the feed lot or sale barn," he states, referring to video clips from facilities where cattle are handled the "old-fashioned way."

The clips show terrified cattle careening off a truck and "spinning their wheels" on slippery concrete or metal flooring. Some fall to the ground in the bottleneck that builds up at the entrance to a narrow, paneled chute.

"We shouldn't expect to break legs when we process cattle," he says. "That's ridiculous."

Another video clip shows how a facility is using buried tractor tires to provide cushioned traction for the cattle as they unload, thereby preventing injuries.


Some of the video clips were painful to watch, even for seasoned ranchers and cattlemen. Naturally, as a veterinarian, Noffsinger says he's sickened by unnecessary animal hardships.

Perhaps more surprisingly, as the owner of a large-scale cattle operation, he also can attest to financial benefits of better treatment methods.

"The bigger the pasture or the bigger the group of animals, the better these techniques work," he says, quickly adding that it isn't always easy to follow through.

"The challenge is we'll all go home and try these things, and we'll make some progress, and then when the chips are down, and we're in a hurry, we'll revert back.

"Probably, the person you have to ask seven or eight times to do these things will ultimately be better at doing them than the people who start to do it right away. That's been a surprise to me," he admits.

"My lessons have been learned by asking people to implement these in production settings, and we've learned together. The best way to learn new things is to teach, because then we can review it, and see what works."

Meanwhile, Hovde, who invited

Noffsinger to New Town, N.D., after watching his presentation in Mandan, N.D., last September, says she's tried the techniques on her horses, and knows firsthand that they work.

She thinks today's cattle industry is ripe for some help.

"No. 1, the profit margin for cattle is getting slimmer and slimmer," she says grimly. "I think some are reluctant to embrace this type of philosophy, and sadly, those are probably the ones who need it most."

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