Low-Stress Livestock Handling Methods Bolster Benefits of Properly Managed Grazing
Every summer, the Sieben Live Stock Company grazes yearling cattle at their Dog Creek Ranch just a short distance west of Helena, Montana. In order to keep pastures from becoming overgrazed and rangelands healthy, the Hibbard family uses a combination of managed grazing and low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) methods.
“As best we can in our mountainous, timbered rangeland, we subscribe to a high-intensity, short-duration grazing philosophy,” says Whit Hibbard, who manages the grazing at the ranch during the summer months. “We follow two basic range management rules, 1) don’t graze the same pasture the same time two years in a row, and 2) rest every third year.”
In addition to being a rancher, Hibbard is also a well-known stockmanship teacher and editor of the Stockmanship Journal. He defines stockmanship as “the knowledgeable and skillful handling of livestock in a safe, efficient, and low-stress manner."
In his experience, Hibbard says he's found LSLH to be an integral element in managing grazing livestock more effectively on rangelands. "The combination of LSLH and the use of portable electric fence is particularly effective in reaching our range management goals," says Hibbard. "At Sieben Live Stock we will have up to 18 miles of Gallagher's single-strand turbo wire strung up at any one time during the summer powered by their solar chargers."
In this manner we have been able to greatly enhance pasture utilization, generate significant animal impact, increase cow days per acre and put more pasture in rest.
According to Hibbard, understanding the twelve foundational principles of LSLH (listed below) is vital to executing it correctly.
- Keep animals in a normal frame of mind.
- Animals should not be forced to do anything they do not want to do or are not ready to do.
- Set up every situation so your idea becomes their idea.
- Animals want to avoid pressure, and they need to experience release from pressure.
- They want to be in a herd.
- They want to move in the direction they are headed.
- They want to follow other animals.
- Good movement attracts good movement.
- Animals want to see what’s pressuring them.
- They want to see to where you want them to go.
- They want to go by you or around you.
- Under excess pressure, they want to go back where they came from.
Of these dozen basic guidelines, Hibbard says one, in particular, stands out as being most important in a grazing setting - cattle want to be in a herd.
“Imagine how much easier it would be to manage our cattle on pasture if they stayed together in a herd,” says Hibbard. “They would be easier to gather and drive where we want.”
Where problems arise, is when cattle are handled conventionally. When cattle are yelled at, pushed, overcrowded, and forced to do things they do not understand or are not ready to do, the herd becomes an undesirable place to be and cattle learn to associate being in a herd as bad Hibbard explains.
In order to use cattle as an effective grazing management tool Hibbard emphasizes that cattle should be handled in a low-stress manner at all times.
For example, says Hibbard, “When it comes to moving cattle between pastures, I’ll either start a lead and work the sides with the reverse-parallel technique (especially with pairs) to generate good movement which will draw the rest, or I’ll drive them from the rear with a zigzag in a ‘T’ to my target.”
The reverse-parallel technique Hibbard speaks of involves going against the direction animals are traveling (front to rear or head to tail) within their pressure zone as a means to speed them up. Because the animal sees the handler coming towards them it will naturally want to avoid the pressure and continue in the direction it’s already going.
The zigzag technique is used to generate movement from the rear and set things up for animals to move in the right direction by “zigzagging” behind the herd at a 90-degree angle to the direction the herd needs to go, in other words in the shape of a “T.” The “T” technique keeps movement in a straight line (which cattle prefer) and clearly communicates to the herd what direction they should head.
The application of these and other LSLH techniques is no different whether grazing on a large or small scale, Hibbard points out.
"Whether you’re rotating cattle through 5,000-acre pastures or 5-acre pastures, you’d use the same techniques,” says Hibbard.
Hibbard notes there are currently very few ranches using LSLH to its full capability- if at all, and consequently a lot of mistakes are made. Primary among them is not driving cattle properly. The tell-tale sign of this mistake is when cattle are moved to a new spot - whether a new pasture or new area in the same pasture - and immediately want to go back to where they came from. Instead of appearing calm, cattle may walk the fence, hang in the bottoms and not perform as well as they could.
Additionally, Hibbard says many livestock handlers do not take adequate time to settle their animals once they have moved them to their target area.
“This has to be done properly,” says Hibbard. “You can’t make the animals settle. Rather, you have to dissipate all forward movement by stopping driving before you get to a target and let them (cattle) drift into it and, if necessary, ride forward-parallel (opposite of reverse parallel) with the herd which slows and stops movement.”
In order to overcome these common mistakes and improve livestock handling skills, Hibbard strongly advises producers attend a stockmanship clinic taught by students of the late Bud Williams, the pioneer of the modern stockmanship movement. William’s daughter Tina, and her husband Richard McConnell of Hand ‘n Hand Livestock Solutions, as well as a few other select practitioners, frequently put on workshops across North America.
In addition, Hibbard recommends Steve Cote’s book, Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management, and his professional publication, Stockmanship Journal, as good resources for further reading on low-stress cattle handling techniques.
By increasing one’s stockmanship skill level and knowledge, Hibbard says, cattle will be easier to handle and producers will be better equipped to implement managed grazing methods to the fullest benefit of their pastures.
“When you have manageable animals that you can easily take where you want and they’ll stay there in a herd, that has profound implications for pasture health and grazing efficiency,” says Hibbard.
Learn more about Sieben Live Stock Company on the ranch’s website. For more info on stockmanship, check out Hibbard’s publication, Stockmanship Journal. Authored by Jesse Bussard.