In all occupations, there are a mixture of excellent employees and those that come up short. Feedlot pen checking is no exception. While one rider can enter a pen instigating a fence testing explosion of beef, another will be virtually welcomed wholeheartedly by the animals. Over the years, I learned it’s very much dependent on the attitude that you portray. Contrary to popular opinion, cattle are not stupid. They sense someone who presents as a predator and being prey animals, their response is typical.
Years ago, there were no formal classes or seminars to attend to learn the craft of pen checking. It was more a matter of being shown the feedlot, given some basic expectations from the owner and being sent out to sink or swim. Not wanting to drown, I watched the other riders closely and tried to learn from the better ones.
One of the first things I took note of was to begin checking a pen before you even arrive at the gate. If you can see the next pen from the gate of the previous one, pause and observe. If you can’t, pause at the pen you are about to enter. The moment you open the gate, you become a threat to a varying degree and once they react to your presence, the sick animals will do their best to blend into the herd.
Upon entry, you need to begin building trust. Try to become familiar with the overall personality of the pen and the individuals in it. Use the paths and trails they have made. Some pens naturally project a sense of flight and unease while others can be docile and calm. A wise rider once told me that the cattle need to see you as a welcome guest, and at minimum, a guest that is tolerated, and definitely not a predator.
Resist the urge to pull a calf immediately, even if there is an obvious ailing animal near the gate. If you do, it will alert the entire pen to danger and will virtually erase any chance of selecting other sick animals. As you criss-cross your way through the pen, make either physical or mental notes of the animals you need to pull. Keep your mount calm as you work and don’t just be a rider looking for obviously sick individuals. Entice the cattle to trust you enough to let down their guard and expose their problems to you. Take your time.
Make sure to get every calf up. If something catches your eye, take that animal for a short walk looking for anything out of the ordinary such as wobbling, coughing, limping, and unnatural body positioning or actions. It is extremely important to pay attention to how they react when you stop following and release them. A healthy aware animal will look back to confirm they are safe while the sick calf will very likely continue to look forward and away.
Once you have identified the animals you need to pull, it is time to move them out. If there is more than one, plan ahead on the order you will work. Start nearest the gate and move them as quietly as possible, working them slowly but steadily applying a small amount of pressure to their safe zone. If they move in the desired direction, stay within the edge of that zone. If they begin to run, release your pressure and slowly angle to block their escape. Don’t allow your mount to get worked up and frustrated. Work the edge of the flight zone efficiently and quietly without shouting or yelling, applying and releasing pressure as they near the gate. If they stop and face you, they will very likely try to run and you will be forced to give ground. Understand that your first attempt is the most important. If they escape and race into the rear of the pen, a second attempt will be much harder with more animals becoming alerted and stressed. Once your target is near the gate, don’t be afraid to allow a friend or two to go with them. It is much easier to sort the extras back, than to make another removal attempt in a panicked and stressed group of cattle. Above all else, remember to do your best to be a guest, not a predator.
As pen checkers, we come across all types of pens of cattle from gentle and docile to guarded and extremely wild. Good patient riders learn to create an atmosphere of trust with all types of cattle and over time build a balanced and uniform pattern of behaviour throughout each group. This will allow the pulling of sick cattle without an extreme burden of stress for all involved.
Bruce Derksen worked in the livestock industry and specifically as a feedlot pen rider for over 30 years in Western Canada. He now lives in Lacombe, Alta.