It’s time to start thinking like cattle when it comes to moving animals.
That’s the message Tom Noffsinger had for cattle producers during a string of low-stress cattle-handling workshops and talks near Brandon through the end of October. Three events were put on through Merck Animal Health, including a public talk Oct. 16 and field workshops hosted Oct. 19 and Oct. 27 at Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives (MBFI) north of Forrest.
Handlers should focus on leading, not driving cattle, Noffsinger said, a method he says is more aligned with cattle’s natural instincts and will therefore take less time and result in less frustration for both human and animal.
Understanding prey and predatory behaviour is part of that, he told attendees of the Oct. 16 talk. Approaching directly, speaking and stalking all fall under predator behaviour, while a handler should also take proper distance from cattle, body position and posture, angles and speed of movements into account.
“Apply pressure to initiate a response; release pressure to reward a positive response,” his presentation stated.
The method is also based on the idea that cattle will return to where they came from if met with an obstacle and will half-turn around a handler, leading Noffsinger to advise a person be positioned in front of a corner if cattle need to turn.
In line with his views on leading, Noffsinger is a believer in approaching cattle from the front.
Presenters at all events urged participants to make eye contact with a single animal in the front of the herd and shift position until the animal’s head is pointed in the right direction. The handler then moves alongside the animal to encourage it to slip past and in the right direction.
“In order to create voluntary cattle movement, what we do is go to the front of the group and satisfy their instinct to see what is guiding them,” Noffsinger said. “We just go so we’re available to their eyes and we create a relationship with the front influential animals and get them to volunteer to go, and then all we have to do is encourage the front of the herd to move and orderly cattle movement is a huge magnet. It’ll just bring all the cattle.”
The veterinarian was critical of close-sided corridors, which do not allow an animal to see people alongside the enclosure, for similar reasons.
Likewise, attendees were instructed to look over the entire herd when entering a pen. If heads come up, relax pressure until the herd is relaxed. Moving against the flow of the herd will speed them moving past, while moving parallel with animals will stop them short, producers were told.
“I hope that they respond to the smallest change — so as they approach cattle and the cattle aren’t doing anything, the minute the animals change, that they respond in a positive (way,)” Noffsinger said.
The events’ information was based on the work of Bud Williams, a well-known stockmanship expert through the ’90s and 2000s in North America. Williams developed his methods in the field from the mid-20th century onwards and helped spearhead the concept of low-stress cattle handling before his death in 2012.
Noffsinger combined Williams’ work with his own observations and testimony from Australian producers.
“The leading thing is very confusing,” he admitted. “What the Australians do is they create a relationship with the front of the herd in such a way that when cattle go someplace, whether the handler is in front of them, beside them, out here, in their minds they’re being led.”
The concept has picked up enough traction that producers travelled from out of province to attend the evening meeting Oct. 16.
Henry McCarthy, a veterinarian out of Wawota, Sask., brought three of his customers to hear Noffsinger.
McCarthy developed an interest in low-stress cattle handling after hearing Bud Williams present in Regina.
“I don’t think it’s novel,” he said. “I think we’ve lost a lot of intergenerational transfer of knowledge because there’s less and less kids growing up and taking over the farms and operations, but we’ve also removed ourselves from being real hands on because we’re drawn away, because there’s financing programs and there’s a lot more office work nowadays and stuff. You don’t just go out and feed the cattle and work with the cattle all day.”
There has been further interest in the technique in his region and they are considering their own low-stress handling event, he added.
Noffsinger introduced attendees to the “bud box,” a method of moving cattle through a chute or into a trailer that was later echoed at the Merck Animal Health workshops.
The open chute or trailer door is in a closed pen door, adjacent and in the same end to the pen’s entry. Cattle are herded inside, while the handler closes the gate and moves to stand just past the chute or trailer opening.
The box is based on the assumption that an animal will return in the direction it just came from once hitting the dead end of the pen. When the animal turns, however, the gate is closed and the only remaining opening is the chute or trailer door, while the stockman is positioned in a way that encourages the animal to turn around them and into the chute.
The system can be effective even with skittish animals, Noffsinger later said. If an animal balks, added pressure (such as another stockman moving in front of the closed gate) can move the animal back into the dead end to try again.
The system got positive reviews when workshop attendees put it into practice days later at MBFI.
Noffsinger, however, urged producers to avoid building a bud box unless handlers are trained in leading, rather than driving.
“You would teach them never to put cattle in that bud box if there wasn’t room for them in that alley,” he said. “You would teach them to never expect movement until they shut the gate, step over to the side and hesitate three to seven seconds to harness the energy of cattle coming back where they came from and you just guide the front in(to) the alley.”
Common mistakes include getting behind cattle in the bud box rather than guiding the front, something Noffsinger says only fosters confusion.
The technique also calls for producers to run animals, particularly calves, through the chute without interference several times before locking in the headgate for vaccination or castration.
The practice is meant to familiarize calves with the chute and delay negative connotations, Merck argues.
“It is a new concept I think,” said Penny Rooke, one of the participants at the MBFI-hosted event. “How to approach cattle with a carrot idea rather than a stick.
“Keeping everyone safe is really important and it’s been very informative about not only actually handling the cattle, but other products that are on the market to make life easier on the farm,” she added.
The all-women workshop Oct. 19 branched out into vaccination advice and equipment as well as handler safety. The remaining event is open to all producers.