It's a philosophical shift, says Dawn Hnatow, one that takes time and a little experience to achieve. But if you do make that leap of faith, you'll thank yourself in the morning because you'll wake up looking forward to working your cattle.
The philosophical shift that Hnatow refers to is the mental approach you take to working with your cattle as opposed to simply working them.
“The reality is that whenever you go into a group of animals and they do something, it's you that caused it,” she says. “They're responding and reacting to instincts. The challenge is to figure out what to do so they react in a way you want them to. You can't keep doing the same thing and expect cattle to react differently.”
Hnatow is originally from Canada, where she worked in an Alberta feedlot for 12 years before migrating south to Bowie, TX, four years ago to manage the cattle operations on the 5,000-acre Addison Ranch, a stocker and cow-calf operation. While at the feedlot, she worked with cattle handling guru Bud Williams. As head of the feedlot's health crew, she repeatedly witnessed the positive result that low-stress handling techniques had not only on animal health and performance, but on cowboys as well.
One of the biggest challenges a stocker operator or feeder has is getting calves to eat, and thus gain, quickly.
“All those animals have eaten prior to coming to your facility or prior to being weaned from your cows. Why would they stop eating suddenly when you have good feed in front of them? So my question is, what are we doing to them that stops them from wanting to eat?” she asks.
The answer is stress. Weaning, marketing and transporting are stressful. She relieves that stress with pressure, properly applied.
“I like for the cattle to feel that the bunk, or where the feed is, is a pressure-free zone,” she says. “In other words, I never try to drive my new cattle up to the feed or chase them up there. I try to create a situation where I actually pressure them away from the feed.”
Yelling, waving your arms and prodding newly arrived cattle simply heaps stress upon stress. That's where the low-stress cattle handling techniques enter the mix.
“If they're in a pen, I'll pressure them to the back of the pen and let them come by me toward the feed,” she says. She never gets behind the cattle and chases them up to the bunk. “Because immediately, they feel like there's something unsafe about being up there. So my focus is to create an area around the feed where they're comfortable.”
She does that by using handling techniques that, at the outset anyway, appear to be counter-intuitive. “I walk straight toward them to let them come by, which is exactly opposite our instincts,” she says. If the cattle start running past her, she'll back up a step or two in a straight line to slow them down.
It's important to not let the cattle blow by you, she says, because you want them to see the bunk as a place of refuge, not a handball court.
“Take a rubber ball and throw it as hard as you can against a wall and it comes back hard. If you roll it up there, it might stay against the wall,” Hnatow says.
It's the same principle when sending cattle toward a feed bunk. Blow them out of there and they're going to hit it with too much force. That will just turn them around and send them back to you again, which defeats the whole purpose.
But aren't you teaching the cattle to run by you? “Yes,” she says. “There's going to be a time and a place when you want them to do that, which is when you sort.” There, the same principles apply. “When I have them in an alley and I want to sort, I'm going to step ahead to let them go by and back up to slow them down.”
First things first
However, bunk breaking isn't the first thing Hnatow does when calves arrive at the ranch.
“The very first thing I do is to teach them to stop, turn around and walk away from me,” she says. That accomplishes a couple of things — it's the cattle's first lesson in how to be driven, and it allows them to diffuse the stress of transportation.
She does that by working side to side in a zig-zag pattern. “There's something about that back and forth movement that creates pressure on that animal to turn around and walk away,” she notes.
Watch a good dog work cattle. It goes back and forth behind the animals, bringing everything up even. That's what you want to accomplish — allowing the animals to pick you up with their peripheral vision as they move away from the pressure you create by stepping in and out of their flight zone.
As soon as the cattle are willing to turn and walk away from her, Hnatow knows she's diffused the stress they're under enough to begin step two, which is teaching them that the feed bunk and water trough are good places to be.
The procedures don't take long. “Just 10 to 15 minutes is enough of a diffusion that when you let them out of the alley or corral into the feed area, they're relaxed enough to go ahead and eat,” she says.
And it takes about that long again in the feed pen, pressuring them to the back of the pen and letting them find refuge at the feed bunk, to complete the first lesson. “I've had very few groups that didn't just go on and eat very quickly,” she says.
The operation includes a cow herd on the Bowie ranch and another ranch in Oklahoma, which together produce about 400 calves/year. They buy another 500-600 stockers to over-winter on the Bowie operation. Heifer calves from the cow herds go to the Oklahoma ranch for development, and the steers go to Bowie to graze. The incoming calves arrive usually over about a six-week period in October and November. Hnatow repeats this procedure with each new load of calves that arrive.
Newly arrived calves spend only one night in the feed pen before they're turned out. After five to six days in a trap, they're brought back to be processed, castrated, dehorned and wormed, if necessary. Once all the cattle have been processed, they're handled as one group in a short-duration, high-intensity grazing program. During the winter, native pasture is supplemented with a commercial ration. After green-up in March, the calves graze small pastures and are moved every couple of days.
“I spend a lot of time with them in the corral that first day, teaching them to drive, so when I do let them out, I have some control over them,” Hnatow says. All the interior pastures are fenced with a single-wire, electric fence. So if the cattle don't learn to work quietly and gently, it would be a wreck in the making to move 800 calves every other day with only a slender thread of electricity to stop a run.
Hnatow is the only two-legged handler the cattle see — she handles and moves all the cattle by herself, using several dogs to help her. She works them on horseback, with a four-wheeler and on foot. And she works the cattle daily while they're on pasture, even the off days, continuing to teach them to work quietly.
The payoff comes at shipping time in mid-July. “My whole goal is to go to any pasture on the ranch, gather the calves, take them to the pens and, number one, have them all there; and number two, have them all there in good shape. In this country in mid-July, it can be pretty hot. And if you mess around very much, you can get into trouble.”
That trouble is shrink, which can partly undo in a day the gain you've worked for months to accomplish.
“If you have to spend three or four hours chasing them around the pasture to get them to the corral, can you afford to give away 5-6% shrink?” she asks. “The cost of that is staggering. It really is.”
While ultimately it's impossible to calculate the dollars and cents advantage of low-stress cattle handling, Hnatow says it's very real. “And just because we don't measure it, doesn't mean it isn't happening,” she adds. “I know that because of the work we've done at dairies.”
In her consulting work there, she's seen milk production increase 15% over a 14-day period, and the only thing that changed was the way in which the animals were worked.
“That tells me we're losing a lot of money in the beef business because we don't understand how much stress costs us. Just because they don't get sick and don't die, doesn't mean stress isn't a factor and it isn't costing us money.”