Cattle handling can damage families

An expert says the stress caused by improper livestock handling could make children reluctant to stay on the farm

LANGHAM, Sask. — Cattle handling expert Dylan Biggs gave crowd members something to think about during a workshop last week at the Ag in Motion outdoor farm show. 

It wasn’t about cattle.

He suggested the stress many families experience when herding, loading and processing cattle could have an effect on farm succession.

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“I guarantee there are kids that have had livestock handling experiences, that have not, let’s put it this way, have not really supported a vision of the future where they’re going to come back to livestock,” said Biggs.

Many hands went up when Biggs asked whether anyone had been yelled at during cattle handling activities, or said things they shouldn’t have in the heat of the moment, or had come to dread the days on the ranch when livestock handling was necessary.

“There’s a social cost with regards to just getting along as a family,” he said before demonstrating ways to move cattle in a calm and controlled manner.

Biggs recalled one clinic he gave, which was hosted by a man who had run out of options. 

He quoted the reasons this man realized more training was needed: “My wife won’t help me anymore. My kids won’t help me anymore. My neighbour won’t help me anymore and I’ve got to learn how to do it all by myself.”

It’s a humorous comment couched in sad reality, said Biggs. Stress in the corral affects not only cattle, “but it also affects kids wanting to come back to the farm.”

It is more usual and perhaps palatable to talk about cattle handling in terms of production, said Biggs, and research shows calm handling, whether gathering, sorting or loading, leads to higher productivity in the animals.

The opposite scenario, when cattle are upset, leads to bruising, dark cutting and excessive shrink.

Biggs, who ranches near Spondin, Alta., has been giving cattle-handling workshops since 1995, learning much of what he teaches from another expert, Alberta rancher Bud Williams.

Among those lessons is the fact that human impulse tends to work against controlled cattle handling, including the tendency to push cattle harder when nearing the destination, and cutting them off if they veer in the wrong direction.

“Why shouldn’t you be able to gather 300 pairs, get them started out in the pasture and walk them up into the corral and not have to be insecure about whether or not you’re going to lose them? And the reason is we don’t have control.”

He defines control as the calm, relaxed movement of animals in the desired direction.

Yet few ranchers have ever examined the meaning of livestock control, nor have family members discussed what went wrong the last time or ways that typical situations could be improved.

In moving cattle, Biggs demonstrated calm movements without yelling or arm waving. By watching the animal’s head and using its spatial awareness to encourage specific directions, he is able to move cattle into the desired spot without stress to either animal or handler.

He also encouraged onlookers to observe the power of simply backing up and away from an animal as a way to get it stopped. He demonstrated the technique numerous times as he worked on foot to guide a bull through a gate.

Biggs gave several demonstrations on cattle handling over the three days of the Ag in Motion show held near Saskatoon July 17-19.

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