It took patience, but within 30 minutes, Ryan Sexton had a small group of cattle exactly where he wanted them – up against the arena fence, near a crowd of people in the Coffee Ag Pavilion.
He did it without raising his voice, shaking a flag or rattle paddle or waving his arms.
Sexton demonstrated low-stress cattle handling techniques last week during the annual meeting of the Nebraska Section of the Society for Range Management and Technical Training. The group spent three days in the northern Panhandle, touring the area and gaining knowledge on new techniques and research.
Sexton’s demonstration was the final one of the day Oct. 18, and after explaining the theories behind low-stress cattle handling at the CSC Student Center, the group followed him to the Ag Pavilion to see them put into action.
It was his first demonstration in front of a large crowd since he attended the Bud Williams Stockman class, and he admitted to some nerves.
“Cattle are extremely sensitive, and they will pick upon that. My responsibility is to learn to control that,” he said.
There are two schools of thought in low-stress handling; each have their place. Temple Grandin focuses on decreasing interaction with the cattle and leans heavily on safety, Sexton explained.
“Any large feeder has acknowledged Temple’s designs because of the large (employee) turnover.”
But Bud Williams approaches it differently, encouraging interaction and the building of a relationship with cattle. Ranchers often talk about building a relationship with a horse, but don’t realize they can do the same with cattle.
“Cattle are no different,” he said. “Cattle are highly trainable and easily influenced.”
The approach calls for using your body positioning to control the cattle and get them where you want them to be.
“A lack of handling is often the cause of our problems, not a lack of intelligence in the animals,” Sexton said.
To build that relationship and have Williams’ approach work successfully, the stockman’s work begins early. In the early days after a calf is born, a stockman needs to make sure it is sucking at least twice a day. That has two benefits – increased immunity and a better connection with its mother that prompts the calf to seek out its mother when the herd is disturbed.
The benefits of low stress handling continue into weaning and adulthood, often equaling more dollars in the rancher’s pocket when cattle are sold, Sexton said. A study between low-stress handling and more traditional techniques showed that in the first week after weaning, the calves in the low-stress group gained 12 pounds per head more; that number increased to 20 pounds difference in the first 30 days. A pedometer attached to the calves also indicated that the low-stress group was walking roughly 1,000 steps less per hour.
A feedlot in Canada saw their need to doctor calves plummet from 75 calves a day to three to five calves per day after they implemented low-stress techniques.
That translates to a cost savings in labor and medical supplies, Sexton said.
On his ranch, he realized that sick calves were not drinking and getting dehydrated because they were too weak to fight the herd for water. He and his wife began taking sick calves to water separately. They recovered from their illnesses without any need for antibiotics, reducing Sexton’s input costs.
The more content the cattle are, the better their grazing efficiency is, as well, he continued, and when it comes time to move cattle, the low-stress techniques make quicker work of the job and every animal is paired up at the end of the move.
The cattle aren’t the only ones to have reduced stress, Sexton said. He experiences more job satisfaction, the crew’s morale is better, and they are taking less stress from work home for more and better quality family time.
“It’s a chain reaction,” Sexton said.