The health and safety shield of stockmanship

By making good stockmanship a regular practice, producers can reduce risk to themselves, their families and their workers

A standard of Canada’s manufacturing plants and production facilities is safety programs, work processes and procedures designed to keep equipment running and workers safe. Farms and ranches are not immune to accidents or incidents, nor to regulation and litigation, but continue to lag behind the modern world’s pursuit of this benchmark.

Reg Steward.
photo: Supplied by Reg Steward

“Health and safety roles were a very unattended aspect of agriculture until the later ’90s. Since then I’ve been involved in these programs extensively in Canada and in some parts of America,” says Reg Steward, the provincial ranch safety consultant for AgSafe, British Columbia. When not riding for ranches in the Williams Lake area, the former RCMP officer helps identify industry norms, plus develop safe work practices for farmers and ranchers.

Integrating good stockmanship

“It’s imperative good stockmanship feeds right into best practices. I try to break down the walls between safety being another job and simply being an integrated piece of how we do our job well. That includes effective and efficient stockmanship.”

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Young woman is standing by a fence on a ranch with cattle in the distance

Steward believes safety must be a key pillar and regular part of the process. “I try to make it practical, so the applications of a good business practice apply to things like stockmanship.”

He cites Temple Grandin and Bud Williams as leaders in the field and promotes their guidance in low-stress livestock handling. Combining stockmanship with consistent breeding and culling can create manageable herds and contribute to practical health and safety.

“The question is: How do we make things like good stockmanship a best practice? How do we make this part of the way we do business? I think that’s the piece I bring to the puzzle.”

Balancing the handling of livestock and people

Steward has been there when stockmanship failed, assisting authorities with investigations throughout Canada as an agricultural safety consultant and during his time in the RCMP.

“In the worst-case scenario, if you have a worker seriously or fatally injured, it will prompt an investigation. Someone will ask: Who says that worker could be in the pen with that cow? That’s when the employer has the opportunity to respond in several different ways.”

But live situations require a constant assessment of changing risk, a difficult task to balance as stock handling involves many variables. Steward says it’s nice to talk about low-stress cattle handling but working with cattle is a physical act.

Animal behaviour expert Curt Pate teaches that low-stress handling is not zero-pressure handling, Steward notes.

“If you have zero pressure, nobody goes anywhere. There is a balance between low stress and adequate and efficient application of pressure. We need to have pressure and understand how it evokes movement.”

And to complicate things, livestock are only part of the equation. “One of the things I like to add to low-stress work is low-stress people handling.”

Today’s interface between workers and employers is a readily seen visual, making it vital to treat employees with respect. Steward says it’s critical with family members where voices and anger tend to rise.

“The days of Dad yelling at everybody and Mom and the kids going to town because it’s cattle handling day — we can’t do that anymore. We pretty much plan to fail when this occurs. It’s unacceptable.”

Making normal practices the right tool

Steward says when things go wrong, it doesn’t matter if it’s about the operation of a tractor or the movement of a cow. The employer’s normal practices need to be safe practices. The regulatory world will ask for proof of due diligence and documentation must be a part of that.

“What is the problem? What have you done about it? And how can you prove it?” Steward believes we’re pretty good at the first two, but often fail at the third.

He adds any tool used to address safety should be an extension of the work instruction and guidance, a mindset of bringing people doing a good job together with animals being properly cared for.

“It can be a simple check-off sheet or a development checklist to help the employer ensure the worker is adequately and properly trained. It also allows them to prove it with a simple ‘tell me, show me and watch me,’ satisfying the due diligence requirement for an employer.”

When hard questions are asked, the employer can prove the worker was evaluated and trained on stockmanship, recognizing hazards and understanding flight zones. They can prove they were informed of and able to identify the need for an escape method and how to approach the cow. Most stockmen know these things, but it’s the disconnect between the questions and the answers that can be a chasm.

Steward says the marketplace is looking for animals that are well cared-for in all aspects. “We do ourselves a tremendous favour when we demonstrate respect for the animal, and a tremendous disfavour when we have practices coming shy. For the long-term well-being of the industry, it’s incumbent on every producer, farmer, rancher and cowboy to work with this in mind.”

He sees the internet as a virtually unlimited tool to analyze information and bring it directly to the field of work. “We need the passion and interest to be lifelong learners and students of the game.”

A common practice of low-stress handling and stockmanship, combined with high regard for livestock and people — and anchored by verifiable documentation —should be the standard.

“We need to be the right kind of ambassadors. It’s absolutely imperative for the industry.” c

Bruce Derksen lives, works and writes in Lacombe, Alta. He has 30 years of experience as a hands-on participant in numerous branches of the Western Canadian livestock industry.

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Bruce Derksen lives, works and writes in Lacombe, Alta. He has 30 years of experience as a hands-on participant in numerous branches of the Western Canadian livestock industry.

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