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Good stockmanship can improve performance

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Growing up in West Texas, Ron Gill saw plenty of people who were good at handling livestock. Now a Texas A&M extension livestock specialist, Gill says he learned not everyone has those skills.

“I grew up around some really good stockmen,” he says, “and when I left, I saw how it was not that way everywhere.”

Gill says it had not historically been a large part of the livestock business to teach people how to handle and move animals.

“We’ve never trained anybody how to work with livestock,” he says.

As a young person he said he tried to figure out what made for good handling — why certain approaches worked better. He remembers going to hear one of the early advocates for proper handling of cattle, Bud Williams, speak.

“I went to several Bud Williams talks and tried to figure it out,” Gill says.

Today, Gill gives talks on low-stress livestock handling across the country, including regular appearances at the Western Farm Show in Kansas City, Missouri. He says low-stress livestock handling has benefits for producers and their animals.

“Stress is one of those areas that is a cost to the immune system, it’s a cost to gain, it’s a cost to reproductive performance,” he says. “Anything we do to reduce stress in cattle, they perform better.”

Gill says the low-stress approach leads to fewer injuries and a safer experience for cattle, but also for people working with cattle. It can also help manage shrink when marketing cattle. He saw the improvements in death loss in calves when he first implemented the low-stress handling strategies on his cattle operation in Texas.

A lot of his demonstrations are available on Texas A&M’s RanchTV YouTube channel.

He says this type of stockmanship involves understanding the animals.

“A cow is a cow, and we’re not really going to change her,” he says. “We’ve got to help them understand what we want them to do. They are visual. They can interpret our position and the amount of pressure on them, how we approach an animal, and how much pressure we put on at any time. If we are precise in when we put pressure, it’s a fairly predictable response out of the animal.”

Gill says it is not a totally passive approach, but rather knowing when to apply pressure and when to be patient, and above all remaining calm. The calm approach allows for the animals to move naturally and not as an overreaction. He says observational skills develop over time, studying cattle and then practicing how best to work with them. He adds that weaned calves are looking for something to replace the guidance of their mothers.

Keeping animals moving naturally also helps.

“Our biggest objective is to create flow and movement with cattle, and then use our position and pressure to direct them,” Gill says.

He works with cattle during his live demonstrations, but Gill says the approach works with other animals.

“It’s the same across all species,” he says.

In West Texas, Gill had a job rounding up feral goats.

“We had good success,” he says.

He says sheep are so pattern-based that if a person is handling them wrong, “they just amplify how wrong you are.”

On a trip overseas, Gill got to try his hand at directing another type of animal.

“I was over in Australia once and herded up a bunch of kangaroos for people to take pictures of,” he says.

Gill says the idea of stockmanship and animal handling was not as widely studied and discussed once as it is today.

“At one time, if you brought up even the topic of improved stockmanship, it was kind of heresy in the industry,” he says.

He says producers can take a more forceful approach and get things done, but it may cause greater stress loss.

“You can force cattle to do stuff and get your job done, but what is the cost?” Gill says.

He says the work of Bud Williams and Temple Grandin went a long way to make talk about improved animal handling more mainstream.

“Dr. Grandin has a great line: ‘We’re in trouble when bad becomes normal,’” Gill says.

He says the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association began having livestock handling demonstrations in the mid-2000s, including Gill and other livestock specialists in Texas, and that led to a program on the topic in Denver at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

It is encouraging when producers who attended demonstrations call up and talk about how the plan worked like it was supposed to work on their farm or ranch, he says.

“It’s amazing to me how many people truly are interested in figuring this out,” he says. “… The ones that come are really trying to get better.”

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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