MITCHELL, Neb. – Dr. Ron Gill, a National Cattleman’s Beef Association clinician and extension animal science specialist with Texas A&M University Agrilife Extension in College Station, Texas, wants ranchers to think about the way they work their cattle.
Whether on horseback, riding an all-terrain vehicle or on foot among the herd, the way you approach cattle can go a long way toward making moving them either easy or stressful, both on the animals and the humans, he said.
Gill brought his message – and his different approach to working cattle – to one of the breakout sessions Monday during the Range Beef Cow Symposium at the Scotts Bluff County Fairgrounds in Mitchell.
“We need to think about how to get them to start, to stop and to turn” to move the animals where they need to go, Gill told the symposium crowd in one of the exhibit barns on the fairgrounds.
“It’s a pretty simple process,” he said. “but it can be quite an accomplishment.”
While his method works regardless of the mode of transportation, working cattle from the back of a horse, when possible, can have advantages, Gill said. It gets the rancher above the herd and lets him or her see what’s going on at different levels. It can also make it easier to react to herd movement. Being on horseback can make individual animals move in the direction they need to go, due to almost a dominance factor imparted by being further above them, he said.
“The main thing I’m trying to do is to get people to think about the natural tendencies of a cow, and then use pressure, release, body position to get the cows to go where you need them to go,” Gill said. “You set it up to where it’s their idea to make that move, so it’s not as stressful for them to do it, so you don’t have to force them through a system.
“If we understand their behavior, we can know where we need to be to make that happen.”
One of those tendencies ranchers may not think about is an innate awareness of what’s going on around them. This comes, in part, from millions of years of evolution as herd animals – prey, not predator – where the awareness becomes a survival mechanism. That awareness has remained as cattle have moved from the open range into the production chain, he said.
“Cows will locate every person in an area before they decide where to go,” Gill said. “They’re that in tune, watching what we do. And everything we do affects them.”
He used the example of a team trying to move cattle off pasture, through a gate in the middle of a fence. Putting people on both sides of the fence to direct them, the cattle will generally pause before crossing through.
“But I guarantee, if you leave that gate open in the middle of the night, every cow will go through it,” Gill said. “If they’ll do something when we’re not there, and balk when we are, it’s about us being there.”
Gill recommends using what he calls a “pressure and release” system to work cattle. That doesn’t mean rushing, willy-nilly at the herd to get them moving. Gentle pressure, applied by approaching bunched up cattle to get them to move away, then backing off if the cattle get too excited, makes moving them easier.
It may sound simple, but it was somewhat of a radical concept when Gill first started doing clinics around a decade ago, he said. But, after people have seen how his ideas work, the industry is coming around.
“It was very slow to start with, Gill said. “The industry is starting to see the validity of what we’re doing. The last three or four years, we’ve really seen a lot of shift in attitude. People saying there may be more to this than we thought.”
One of the biggest advantages to Gill’s stockmanship system is the reduction of overall stress on the herd, he said. Stress can impact animal health by weakening their immune systems and it definitely hurts performance and can toughen the meat.
“Here’s what I think we’re doing by changing some of this – if we take stress off the animal, their immune system is not impaired at all,” he said. “So, if they do experience exposure to pathogens, they’re more likely to fight them off naturally, rather than us having to treat them with antibiotics.
“From that standpoint, I think that’s where we’re making a better product,” Gill said. “We’re not having to use treatments to get them over respiratory disease and other ailments.”