For Curt Pate, handling cattle in an effective manner is vital to a stockman’s success.
“What we really need to think about are what the effects of our cattle handling are doing to the performance of our cattle,” he said during the 2018 Western Canada Feedlot Management School in Regina.
Pate, who came into the spotlight after working on the film “The Horse Whisperer,” gives colt starting, horsemanship and stockmanship clinics across North America. For many years, he made his living starting colts. “I don’t know any other job that requires you to change an animal to perform for you more than a colt starter,” he said.
“You don’t know where that colt’s going to go. He might go to a kid, he might go to the futurity down in Fort Worth. So you start that animal in a way that he can go wherever you want him to go. That’s the way I look at cattle handling. We’ve got to handle these cattle in a way to get our job done, but they can still perform when we’re done.”
Pate prefers the term “effective” stockmanship over the more commonly used “low-stress,” as what works for one operation may not work for another. To be effective in a feedlot setting, which was the focus of his presentation, new employees with less experience must learn how to read cattle. The challenge is that this is difficult to teach. “It’s very hard to understand because it requires feel, timing, and balance.”
- Read more: Five tips for easier cattle processing
Like working with a new employee to help them become a more effective stockman, Pate explained that each interaction with an animal sets the tone for your relationship. “If each time you work with them they get more aggravated or scared or wild, pretty soon you won’t even be able to get in the pen with those cattle. We create it, and it’s all about pressure,” he said. “The proper pressure at the proper time and the proper release of pressure at the proper time is what makes stockmanship successful.”
Pate speaks about three types of pressure, the first of which is a driving pressure. “That’s probably the pressure in a feedlot situation that we have to use the most,” he said.
The second is a drawing pressure, in which you draw an animal to you by methods like shaking a bucket of grain or catching their eye and backing up.
The third is a maintaining pressure, used to keep an animal’s attention. “When we’re working cattle, we’ve got to put just enough pressure on to keep them thinking about us, but not so much that we’re driving them away.
“We’re all overcoming pressure. If you’re loading fat cattle on a truck, that truck might be putting back 50 pounds of pressure. You’ve got to be able to at least put 55 pounds of pressure back there to get them to go through that pressure.”
In addition to pressure, Pate explained that understanding how the two sides of an animal’s brain relate to performance is key to effective stockmanship, particularly in a feedlot setting. He spoke about his grandfather, a cattle trader in Montana who was skilled at getting new calves on feed and taught him how to keep them “on the gain.”
One side of an animal’s brain is responsible for thinking, which allows for growth. The other side is concerned with reacting and survival. Pate referred to these as the gain side and shrink side. “The more time you have an animal on the gain side, the less time on the shrink side, the more profit that’s potentially available. So that’s our job as a stockman, to keep the animal on the thinking or the gain side of his brain.”
In bucking stock, the switch from thinking to reacting is much faster. “I notice that they don’t put their heads down very long. They put their head down and get something to eat, and then they pick it up and look,” he said. The same can be true for new feeder calves. “They’re always on the edge of switching from thinking to surviving. Our job is to change that, to try to get those animals to where they’re trusting us.”
Creating better feeder calves
In feedlots, calming down new calves means they can start gaining sooner. Pate told the audience how he helped to calm down newly weaned calves on a ranch in Hawaii with a reputation for being harder to handle.
“There’s a lot of movement in them,” he said of these calves, which had been taken to a new pasture. “We’d get out in front of them on our colts and I’d check that movement up.” He did this by trying to stop the animals’ feet, which comes from a horsemanship technique. “If you have a hard-to-catch horse, all you’ve got to do is stop its front feet. Don’t try to catch the whole horse — try to catch his front feet.”
Previously, these calves would spend days walking the fence, not eating. By working to check their movement, Pate helped the calves to calm down and start feeding. “In three days, I had to haul more feed out.”
When a group of new feeder calves won’t settle down, pressures are at work within the group. While some calves are being pushed by the calves walking behind them (driving pressure), others are being pulled by the calves walking in front of them (drawing pressure).
“We’ve got this push and this pull that’s causing these calves to go walk for three days until they get so fatigued and tired that they go lay down somewhere and they don’t eat.” Pate advised slowly stopping the leaders’ movement by focusing on their feet, without turning the whole group back.
While nervous cattle have trouble getting on feed, quiet cattle can pose a different problem. “For your cattle to feed right and to gain right and to work right, they can’t be running off every time you go in the pen, but they’ve got to have a little bit of life so you can get them out of the pen,” he said. “They’ve got to want to push to that bunk and get to that feed.”
Moving quiet cattle can be a challenge because when a person follows behind them, “they stop and wait for you to come into focus,” he explained. “You need to go back and forth across them and suck your chest in, and when they start walking forward, you cannot come forward any faster than they’re walking. If you do that, you’re asking them to stop… Pretty soon they’ll learn that if they move, they get a release.”
When asked about using electric prods while processing, Pate explained that for the most docile animals, a very quick buzz with a prod can be safe and effective. “I think a Hot Shot is one of the most humane tools we have, used properly,” he said. “The thing is, if you Hot Shot her and she steps forward and you catch her head, why would she go? She just got punished for doing what you asked her to do.”
In this case, he suggested running a group of cattle through the open chute before bringing them back for processing. Often, they’ll come through on their own the second time. “I think running cattle through, training cattle, is one of the things that will teach our employees more and get our cattle ready to work better than anything we can do.”
Coming into focus
Understanding how the bovine eye works and its position can help you to correctly apply pressure when moving cattle. “The farther forward you can be to work animals, the more control you have,” said Pate. By being forward and to the side of an animal, “you’re in the most focus without being directly in front of them.”
Because their eyes are set on the side of their head and they have a different pupil than humans, objects farther behind cattle appear fuzzier. “When you get back here, they can see you and they can see movement, but they can’t see what you’re doing,” he explained. When you’re behind an animal, they will often turn their head to better focus on you, changing their direction. “The thing we want to do is get out wide as we can, which creates more focus and more direction.”
As an animal can only have its mind in one place at a time, a calf being pulled from a pen will want to see who’s behind him and likely turn back if the handler walks directly behind him.
“If I’m driving an animal out of this gate, he’s looking at the gate and I come in behind him and I put pressure on him, he can’t think of the gate anymore. Now he’s got to think about me and my pressure,” he said. “If we’re going to get this animal to walk out that gate, we’ve got to have movement and direction.”
Pate offered two tips to get in the right position to use pressure to create both direction and movement. “The same place they give a shot in the neck, the proper administration of any kind of shot, is the same place we should pressure when we’re trying to move cattle. If you move your pressure from the tail to the neck, that changes everything,” he explained.
His second tip is to stand where you can count the animals out when pulling calves from a pen. “It will position you in a spot where you can control flow and create movement, especially if you’ve got any number of them,” he said. “If you have a number of cattle, you’re going to walk in the pen, position yourself to start the leader and then control the flow out so you don’t lose your count.”
Pate encouraged the audience to work on these skills with their employees for the benefit of daily operations and the beef industry as a whole. “We’ve got to change the way we look at animals and the way we work. Our customers are going to demand it. Our bottom line is going to demand it,” he said. “I hope you’re all passionate about your employees, your animals and your customers, and the better we get at stockmanship, the more benefit all three of those will have.”