Influencing Behavior

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An early start with calm animal handling will pay off with less stress on cattle, and their handlers, through later events such as weaning and shipping.

Veterinarians who work with multiple clients see the contrasts: Cattle on some operations are simply easier to handle than on some others. And the consequences of that variation probably extend beyond the time investment in processing activities, with low-stress herds experiencing better health and performance than those in more stressful environments.

Veterinarians, says North Dakota State University associate professor Jerry Stokka, DVM, MS, are ideally positioned to help clients and their crews improve stockmanship practices and animal stewardship. They can serve as objective outside resources to help ranchers evaluate their facilities and practices, and work toward more positive interactions with their cattle.

Limiting or reducing stress on animals brings multiple performance, health and welfare benefits, Stokka notes, and veterinarians are well equipped to address stressors that can be managed. He also points out the industry increasingly faces public scrutiny on animal-welfare issues, creating a need for better communication and transparency to maintain consumer trust. Demonstrating good animal husbandry will help protect that trust. Outright abuse, of course, cannot be tolerated. Handling practices that inadvertently create stress within the herd, however, can be corrected through training and education. 

IDENTIFY OPPORTUNITIES

Any production tasks in which the veterinarian is involved, from preconditioning to artificial insemination to pregchecking, offer an opportunity to observe how the cattle and their handlers behave, says Nebraska practitioner Tom Noffsinger, DVM. From those observations, the veterinarian can identify opportunities for improvement.

Noffsinger has dedicated much of his time in recent years to teaching stockmanship practices to producers after working in partnership with the late Bud Williams, who is widely credited with developing the low-stress animal-handling methods in practice today. Stockmanship and animal handling, he says, provide an opportunity for veterinarians to put themselves in a strong position as information sources and service providers.

Lynn Locatelli, DVM, who runs a practice out of New Mexico, agrees, saying veterinarians can help producers understand what is possible. Livestock producers generally are located in geographically isolated, sparsely populated areas, she says. “They develop their own concepts of normal.

Some ‘normals’ include really, really good stockmanship, while other normal slack skill.” Like Noffsinger, Locatelli worked closely with Bud Williams and now teaches low-stress animal handling based on his principles.

OVERCOME BARRIERS

Change, of course, does not always come easily to producers steeped in tradition and lifelong habits. It can be intimidating, Stokka says, especially for young veterinarians, to challenge long-standing practices and traditions within an operation. Diplomacy is a key skill, and with the right approach, the veterinarian can help ranch, feed yard and dairy employees recognize the opportunity to improve.

Noffsinger acknowledges the diplomatic challenges in breeching the subject of animal handling with clients. Most owners and managers have been in the business for years and worked with cattle all their lives. They tend to believe the way they work cattle is the right way and could become defensive if they feel they are being challenged or criticized. He suggests a “learning together” approach. “I’ve just learned about some new methods for moving cattle,” he’ll say. “This is really exciting new information. Let me show you.”

Then he suggests using simple demonstrations. For example, he’ll put a few cattle in a square pen and demonstrate moving them to a gate or alley. When the cattle bunch up in a corner, most handlers will try to push them out, causing resistance and stress. He’ll show how by approaching them from the front and standing at a 45-degree angle to the cattle, he can apply the right amount of pressure and they’ll walk past him, wanting to go in the direction he wants them to go. Some producers really want to develop skill and others do not, Locatelli adds. Sometimes framing the principles of stockmanship in terms of efficiency, financial reward and labor savings motivates producers to take a second look at embracing skill development.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

“Veterinarians should lead by example,” Locatelli says. She suggests offering to help coordinate a production event such as pregnancy checking, preconditioning, ultrasound and AI projects. The veterinarian can offer to bring in trained labor for an hourly charge and organize the process such that the operation’s employees are exposed to good handling techniques. Organize the labor into defined jobs where everyone understands expectations, she says. Focus on quality of work, not speed. Reward excellence and help skill-deficient personnel understand stockmanship principles. Noffsinger suggests a similar approach. When clients call asking you to vaccinate a group of cattle or process replacement heifers, ask them whether they have walked the cattle through the processing chute without doing anything to them. This is a good opportunity to suggest they try this procedure — just leave the head gate open and walk the cattle through. If a producer has done this once, or ideally a few times, the cattle know more of what to expect at processing time and move more easily. It can be worth the veterinarian’s time to demonstrate the practice during a scheduled visit, he adds. “Lead by example. Show the crew how to apply and release pressure and move the animals quietly.”

Noffsinger suggests using a similar strategy to prepare calves for weaning. Rather than making weaning the first time calves are separated from their dams for a significant length of time, consider incorporating overnight separations into other events such as branding, artificial insemination or preconditioning. Coupled with good handling practices, these temporary separations can make the weaning process less stressful for everyone.

Locatelli stresses that understanding stockmanship principles and developing animal handling skills deserves some “focus time,” and encourages veterinarians to schedule time for dedicated training with their clients. When producers are in the middle of a production event, she says, they often don’t feel they have the luxury of time to embrace new ideas. Stokka notes that in many cases, extensive training is not necessary for improvements in cattle handling. Relatively simple changes in minimizing noise, learning how to properly apply and release pressure on cattle or modifications to facilities can make big differences. He also notes that some ranchers have had some training in low-stress handling but become frustrated when it does not seem to work for them. In most cases there are some aspects they do not understand, possibly coupled with problems with facilities or cattle whose past experiences have led to flighty behavior. Some outside assistance in identifying the problems could help them turn things around and capitalize on the training they’ve had. Finally, Stokka says, vaccines do what they’re supposed to do, but when other aspects of management break down, such as nutrition or stressful handling, immunity suffers in spite of vaccinations. Veterinarians can help ensure the efficacy of their herd-health programs and client satisfaction by implementing comprehensive stewardship programs, including low-stress animal handling, to enhance immunity and performance.


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