Dawn Hnatow sure knows how to take the fun out of being a cowboy.
Hnatow, livestock manager for Addison Ranch in Bowie, Texas, didn’t even ride a horse when she was working stock during her seminar on low-stress livestock handling held in conjunction with the Wheat City Stampede and Horse Expo.
By the end of her session, she was sending youth out on foot in teams of two to move 20 calves from one end of the ring to the other with nary a whistle, which bore little resemblance to the raucous team-penning competition held just prior.
But having a little less fun chasing cows with racy horses and lots of whooping and hollering is one way ranchers can put more money in the bank – and that makes the cattle business a much more pleasant way to make a living.
In her mind, a good day working cattle is more akin to watching paint dry than a thrilling spectator sport.
“The last thing you want to do is get them running,” the former Albertan told the group of young ranchers. “Every time you do that, it costs you money.
“If you think about gathering your cattle off of grass after summer and you spend four or five hours chasing them around that pasture to get them into that corral, that’s about seven or eight per cent shrink. That’s your profit. Our margins are so tight now, we can’t afford to give that away,” she said.
Hnatow, who studied under low-stress-handling guru Bud Williams, believes taking the excitement out of moving cattle can improve a herd’s performance in multiple ways, including increased meat production, reduced labour costs associated with handling, and even higher herd conception rates. Quiet cattle are also known to produce better-quality meat.
“If you guys want to stay in ranching and make a living, it’s very important that you get the animals working for you,” Hnatow said. “Because it is costing you a lot of money if you don’t.”
A key, and often overlooked benefit of low-stress handling is improved safety for both the stock and the handler – a point that brings back memories of growing up on her family’s ranch near Marwayne, Alberta.
She remembers the family being rustled out of bed on days the herd needed to be processed. “First we’d have to find my sister, who would be hiding in the dryer or someplace – because it was not a fun day,” she said.
One by one the family members would find excuses to leave the scene. “I was dumb enough to stay there until I got run over,” Hnatow said.
PUTTING THE FUN BACK
Hnatow said there’s no reason for the panicked rushes and bunched up, flighty herds that are associated with traditional ranching activities. “I’ve spent 12 years working in feedlots and I’ve never used a hotshot (electric prod),” she noted.
Animals like to be able to see their handlers. If the handlers move up behind them in a straight line, they are likely to turn and move sideways so they can see who’s behind them.
So if you want the cattle to move ahead in a straight line, the trick is to move back and forth in zigzag slightly off to one side of them.
When trying to sort animals in an alleyway, walk towards them and let the chosen ones come by you. If they start to move too quickly, move backwards to release the pressure.
“In my experience, sorting is the most dangerous thing we do. You’re working with animals in tight areas and that’s where you can really get mashed,” she said.
Humans are predators by nature, whereas livestock are prey animals. “There’s a lot of people get injured because we don’t understand their instincts and they certainly don’t understand ours.
“Don’t stick your hands through the barns and slap their butts,” she warned. “I’ve seen people get their arms broken that way three times.”
ENJOY THE LIFE
Hnatow noted society is becoming increasingly intolerant and watchful of how the livestock industry treats animals – all the more reason to choose methods that don’t attract attention.
But mostly, she’s concerned about the loss of young people from ranching as a lifestyle. She believes a different approach could help turn that around.
“I’d like to see them stay at home and take over the farm. But in order for that to happen, it has to be something economically they can do, and they have to enjoy what they are doing – if you are stressed out, it’s not very much fun.
“Any time you go to work your stock and you are upset and stressed that makes me sad,” she said. “That’s a ‘get to’ thing. We get to do that. So of us who can, should enjoy it, it is a wonderful way of life.” [email protected]