It was a far cry from the usual energy surrounding cattle movement.
In fact, to those watching the low-stress cattle-handling demonstration at Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives near Brookdale last month, there seemed to be little going on at all.
Movement seemed to grind to a halt for long moments at the end of the corral, where two MBFI staff had urged the cow-calf pairs that they hoped to separate into a pen to the right. Talk between the two staff was quiet and calm, and the pair seemed to stand still as they co-ordinated, save the occasional step towards an animal moving in a direction that they didn’t want.
Less than five minutes later however, the two staff had coaxed the desired animals through the gate without panic, and cattle were calm enough to start the next move right away, doing away with any time that would normally be wasted as recently moved animals settled down.
Why it matters: Producers might argue that they don’t need any help on how to move cattle, but safety consultant Reg Steward insists that taking some time to see a handling system through the eyes of a cow can play a big role in decreasing farm accidents.
It’s one of the unspoken benefits of a less aggressive cattle-handling strategy, Reg Steward of Buffalo Creek Consulting, and the day’s instructor, argued.
The ranch safety consultant, out of Williams Lake, B.C., has seen plenty of what can happen when moving cattle goes wrong. An expert witness in ranch and farm workplace incidents, he has been called to the scene of fatalities when someone got on the wrong side of a 1,200-pound animal in the corner of a corral. He has seen what can happen when a handler enters the pen without a clear exit route or when cattle spook in the wrong direction.
For him, the adoption of low-stress cattle handling is as much about worker safety as it is about appeasing an increasing consumer scrutiny on animal welfare. More than that though, he argues, the practices just make cattle movement easier, less tension ridden and, in many cases, actually faster.
The strategy may look different for the lone farmer compared to low-stress handling tutorials on YouTube or tutorial examples drawn from larger operations in Alberta. A farmer in Manitoba may very well be working alone rather than in teams, Steward acknowledged, although he maintained that his arguments hold water.
“The principles continue to apply and, actually, the tighter you are to the principles, the more effective they are for you as a lone worker,” he said, noting that he often works by himself while range handling, although usually with the assistance of a dog.
“It’s easier if there’s somebody else,” he acknowledged. “It sometimes means taking a smaller group of cows instead of taking a whole bunch, just working within the capacity that you have, and sometimes it is a matter of going, ‘I know I’m in over my head here and I need a hand.’”
For him, his dogs become the tool that allows him to work alone, although he noted the time and effort invested in training a dog to work with his strategy, and not to make things worse.
Manitoba’s Farm Safety Program has also flagged the practice for avoiding injury and accidental deaths.
A relaxed cow is unlikely to behave aggressively or accidentally hit a handler while trying to flee, it reasons, while a more relaxed atmosphere can only help alleviate farm stress and make sure that handlers — usually family members — can maintain healthy relationships.
“We’re fantastic at production as farmers,” farm safety program manager Thea Green said. “We’re really good at what we do. So when we’re talking about moving animals, we already know how to do that really, really well — most of us do, at least. What we’re missing is the communication piece of it sometimes… It’s not necessarily getting a cow from A to B; that’s part of it, but can you still have dinner with those people at the end of the night? Do they want to come back to work the next day?”
The low-stress approach should inform not only the interaction between handler and animal, but between the handlers themselves, Steward noted.
He recalled one anecdote from his own recent stint on a western cattle ranch. The supervisor in question had a habit of disparaging and yelling at more junior team members, something that Steward says both sent the wrong message to the animals about to be moved, and discourages younger employees from staying in the business. That’s less than ideal and an industry with significant labour shortages, he noted.
In other cases, the lead handler took off immediately as the group hit the field without communicating any plan, leaving the rest of the handlers, including Steward, confused on what they were expected to do next.
“I think it’s really important that we understand that we’re working as part of a team and, in agriculture, we have not necessarily done teamwork really well,” he said. “It’s important to make sure that people know the plan, know what will happen if the plan isn’t going to work, have some input into the plan. The new worker and the millennial wants to be a participant and we need to acknowledge that there needs to be change in that direction.”
That approach turns an order to go wait for cattle in a specific spot into something more interactive and meaningful for the up-and-coming rancher, he noted. Instead of an autocratic instruction, he advised ranchers to explain the reasoning behind the instruction, why that spot is a good spot to wait for the cattle, and to encourage the young worker to share their thoughts and suggestions.
Avoiding regulatory headaches
That farm safety angle is critical for a farm’s liability, according to the farm safety program’s safety consultant, Morag Marjerison.
The former farm accident inspector visited 55 farms where there had been a fatal farm accident in her six years in that role, and now spends her days advising farms on how to improve their safety before an accident happens, or a farm gets hit by a surprise inspection. Although many farms are family run, they are a workplace, she stresses, and are therefore accountable to the same workplace safety standards as a business with outside farmhands.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” she told farmers during the low-stress cattle-handling workshop last month.
Steward agrees. He advised farmers not only to take a safer approach when handling cattle, but also to keep notes of that training and qualifications on record. Those records become a powerful tool if an incident happens, and authorities are suddenly asking questions on what went wrong, he said.
If someone enters a pen and is killed by an animal, a farm will find itself justifying why that employee was in that pen, he noted. That is easier if there is a clear-cut paper trail showing that the employee had been trained, evaluated, and what criteria was used in the evaluation to prove that employee’s competence, he added.
“I think that we need to realize that we live in a day and an age where regulatory requirement, due diligence and compliance are part of what we’ve got to do,” he said. “There’s three components: what’s the problem, what have you done about it and how can you prove it? Producers are really good at A and B, they’re just not that good at C, so simple documentation that establishes the things that they’re already doing or have done is the answer.”
The first major step, he argued, is to stop thinking about safety as something extra or tacked on after the rest of the day’s work is done. Instead, he argued, that safety should be built into every existing task on the farm.
After that, he said, simple health and safety documents as laid out by provincial organizations can go a long way in establishing proven due diligence, and be a much needed buffer if the worst should happen.