In the current cattle industry, with feedlots and ranches working overtime and understaffed, working alone is becoming commonplace. Quick action when a sick or injured animal is identified will free up more time for other duties and reduce deads and retreats. The ability to quickly, safely and single-handedly pull or trail animals to be treated in the pasture or the feedlot — on foot or horseback — is becoming a necessary skill.
To begin, a basic understanding of cattle’s fight or flight instinct is needed. The flight zone is an invisible circle around each individual animal. When a threat enters that circle, the animal will move away until its flight zone is free of that threat. If the animal feels it cannot escape by running, it may turn and charge or run past the threat instead. When cattle move in relation to a human entering their pen or pasture, their reaction is always to fight or flee. Whether you view yourself as a predator is beside the point; in most situations your cattle are going to view you, to some extent, as a threat. What is important is that you control how big of a threat you appear. It is worth noting that sick animals will have a distorted flight zone. Usually their flight zone will become smaller, allowing you to come closer, although occasionally neurological conditions will cause their flight zones to become much larger.
You must also distinguish between moving an entire group of cattle and moving an individual, since this influences your behaviour the instant you enter the pasture or pen. I find that sense of purpose in my movements is enough to excite cattle, as opposed to moving rather aimlessly. For example, if I am entering a pen to get them all out, I would go purposefully to the back of the pen, getting them on the move as I went. If I was to wait until I was at the back of the pen to show any indication that I wanted them to move, the back ones might run, and the front ones might stand and stare at the gate. Consistently displaying the same behaviour every time you pull a group helps.
On the other hand, if I want to pull only an individual out (which is more to the point of this article), I will enter and move about the pen somewhat aimlessly, stopping often and making as little noise as possible.
Handling cattle alone should also be distinguished from handling cattle with others. Although I advocate calm, quiet cattle handling in every situation, employees get away with mishandling from time to time when there are others present to bring up the slack. Those that are accustomed to working alone know that this changes the balance; we need to be more aware of how cattle think and what really works on the first attempt. I notice more of a problem amongst feedlot workers than ranch workers. Ranchers usually have a huge stretch of land in front of them; they find out pretty quickly that they are not going to hurry a sick animal anywhere. Lot workers can get addicted to the “gotta get things done!” mind frame of rushing from one task to the other, even if it ends up taking longer anyway.
Keeping feedlot cattle calm is an special challenge, with all the new animals coming in or pens being shuffled, versus pastured cows that become easier to handle every year with proper stockmanship. It can take a few weeks of consistent handling to settle a new pen down. It is worth it, however, when you want to treat a sick animal and the cattle remain evenly spread out. Individuals will become anxious if the other animals avoid the gate area or bunch at the back of the pen.
It helps to behave accommodatingly to your cattle, as silly as that may sound. If there are cattle trails, take advantage of them. Cattle move along more easily if you let them walk where they know other cattle have gone before. Cattle don’t like deep mud, water, frozen manure, ice, or anything else that makes them feel vulnerable. Allow them to pick their way around it, if possible, as long as they arrive at the same destination.
Don’t wave your arms or yell. To an individual animal this says “I’m going to eat you. There is no escape.” Cue pen rider being ploughed over.
When pulling an individual, the speed and angle at which you move in relation to that animal is important. If I am alone, I will either position myself to keep the animal against the fence all the way to the gate, or else walk behind it and slightly to one side. You have to stay enough to one side that the animal can watch you out of the corner of its eye without turning around, but far enough behind that it continues to move forward. Passing in and out of its flight zone works well for keeping the animal moving without panic. Stay far enough back that it has time to stop occasionally, pass manure or urinate along the way before you step into its flight zone and move it forward again. This is where it becomes necessary to have a responsive, relaxed horse, if you are using one. If the animal begins to get a bit excited, it is important to stop putting pressure on it for a moment before it turns and faces you.
Turning and facing you is a result of pushing too hard, too fast or a less than ideal facility set up. Many older facilities were not built with low-stress cattle handling in mind, which makes it even more crucial to give the animal time to think. If it does feel stressed enough to turn and face you, it means it has switched to high-powered flight mode, or even fight mode. If you continue to push, it will probably try to get past you, or over you! The same goes for increased speed in the animal you are moving. I find that often, once an animal begins to trot — an indication that you are pushing too hard — you may be looking at extra time getting it out (after it burns past you at 100 miles an hour).
Keeping an animal going slowly also allows it time to “see” the gate. Often a panicked animal will look at an open gate about 10 times and still decide that there is no way out because it is too excited to process information. A calm animal will spot the gate and trot out with the enthusiasm of someone getting away with something. It is amusing how often cattle will do what you want if they think they are being clever and pulling the wool over your eyes. Once they see the treating squeeze, it is usually too late for them to turn back.
Some folks may be reading this and saying “but she doesn’t know my cattle.” There are those special animals. I might be prejudiced, but in my experience, they often have too much exotic blood. High-headed runners generally remain so. Avoid purchasing them in the first place and you will make the pen checkers job (not to mention whoever sorts them) far less vexing and dangerous. If you do have a couple of runners in your lot that are spoiling the behaviour of the entire group of cattle, moving them to a smaller pen can be helpful. Extra-slow movements and looking slightly to one side when checking can also make them feel less threatened.
If a particularly challenging animal does become ill it is best to figure out the method of pulling it, before you attempt it. Occasionally sick, high-strung animals (usually those effected with BRD) can get so over-exerted that they may die right there in the pen before your eyes. Pulling with a few other animals can often help, using more people to get the animal out fast (even if it does break the rules of keeping it calm), or roping it can be solutions.
Some feedlots and ranches continue to believe that more noise or more people will help get the job done more quickly. However, once you get the hang of quiet, slow cattle handling, you will be amazed at how quickly things move. These methods work whether you are using a horse or walking on foot. You won’t need to stop and assess movements and reactions, but will seamlessly add or remove pressure, subtly changing the way you come across to fit the needs of each animal. You won’t want to go back to the way you used to handle cattle!
Katie Deneiko Is A Pen Rider At A Commercial Feedlot In Saskatchewan