Quiet Handling, Strategic Pressure Helpful for Cattle Direction
Bill Edwards considers the working facilities on his ranch near Olsburg, Kansas, to be “nice but not fancy.” His commonsense design certainly simplifies cattle handling, but the real key to working livestock with ease, he says, is how you handle the cattle within a set of facilities.
“Don’t push cattle too hard; take them slow,” he told visitors to his ranch last summer during a tour and cattle-handling demonstration sponsored, in part, by the Kansas Graziers Association.
The main working facilities on the Edwards Ranch were built 20 years ago. They were designed so a minimum of one to two people can sort and work small groups of cattle.
Today, for vaccinating and pregnancy-checking, the simple, yet effective, facilities let three to four handlers process with ease 120 cows in just under two hours.
A consideration for cow psychology is at the heart of Edwards’ cattle-handling methods. He learned his thoughtful ways from careful study of his cattle and how they respond to the behaviors of people. Edwards has also attended cattle-
handling seminars instructed by Bud Williams.
“Your attitude is key to getting cattle to do what you want them to do,” he says.
“Try to be quiet and get cattle oriented so they can make the right decision. It works best if you can get them set up so that instead of having to force them, they actually go where you want them to go. If you want them to go away from you and they’re facing you, you’ve got a problem,” he says.
In that critical moment – a visual standoff between cow and handler – lies the opportunity for the handler to take steps leading to a simple turning of the cow and her movement in the desired direction.
Considering that driving a cow from straight behind will often cause the animal to turn so that she can get a better look at the person invading her flight zone, Edwards stands at an angle to the side of the cow. To encourage her movement away from his body, he steps quietly to the side, often zigzagging slightly.
“As soon as the cow gives me a response by moving away, I’ll release the pressure by standing still or backing off a half step,” he says. “Then I’ll step closer, increase the pressure, until she steps away, and I’ll take the pressure off again.”
The quiet process soon leads to the cow looking in the direction in which Edwards wants her to travel. In moments, that is precisely where she goes.
It’s a time-consuming encounter set, as it often is, in the midst of the fray of working an entire herd. Yet, it’s an opportunity well taken. Such episodes build upon each other, which culminates in ease of handling an entire herd.
The working of cattle in small increments of progress is Edwards’ style, too, for operating the homemade tub. The semicircular pen holds cattle at the entry to a chute leading to the squeeze chute, where individual animals are processed.
The tub and its back wall are solid sided; the radius within the tub is 8 feet. While the tub is able to hold six to eight cows, filling it to capacity creates problems.
“If that many cattle are in the tub, they will all turn their heads to the center,” says Edwards. “When they do that, you can’t get them to move without using force.”
He gets most effective use of the tub by letting only three to four cows in at once. That’s the number of cows that can fit standing head to tail in the chute leading up to the squeeze.
After letting cows into the tub and closing the gate, the handler walks around the outside of the pen and slides open a gate leading into the chute. As the handler returns to the rear of the tub, the cows watch above the solid portion of the sidewall as the handler passes by. This movement typically causes the few cows in the tub to turn and seek a way out, which is through the opening leading into the chute.
“If I were going to redesign the tub, I believe I would make the sides open,” says Edwards. “I think if the cattle could see a person’s body more fully, they’d turn and go up the chute even more easily than they already do.”
While Edwards gets help from neighbors to process the entire herd, he handles cows and heifers single-handedly for artificial insemination (AI).
He sets up the cattle for AIing by synchronizing them in groups. Neighbors help with the processing of cows for injections and for placement and removal of vaginal implants.
For the actual AIing, Edwards works alone. Following his synchronization protocol, he heat-detects and breeds on heat for three days, before finishing up with a timed breeding on cattle not showing signs of heat.
Because he synchronizes cattle in groups of 25 head, there are typically no more than six to 10 cows or heifers to breed at one time. His working facilities let him handle this number with relative ease for the AIing process.
The pasture-sorting from the herd of cows and heifers to be bred is a more sensitive process and requires case-by-case creativity.
His breeding pasture leads into the main corral feeding into the working facilities. Cows in heat typically group together in the pasture, and Edwards often runs this group into the corral while the cattle are still in standing heat.
As the cows wait in the corrals for the appropriate breeding time, the calves often congregate outside. By opening the gate, Edwards can put pairs together.
“I just keep going with the flow, and I try to set cattle up so they can make the right decision about where I want them to go,” he says.
Simple Ways Work
With neighbor Bob Avery, Kansas rancher Bill Edwards is sometimes able to accomplish cattle-handling feats he himself first thought impossible.
The cow-savvy events illustrate what’s possible when humans think like cows and then set cattle up to move in the right direction, reserving pressure for only the most strategic times.
“For the last couple of years, the two of us have grazed 140 cows in a field of cornstalks,” says Edwards. “When it’s time to leave the field and split the two herds, we’ve done it by making a circular, single-strand polywire fence of about 60 feet in diameter. Working within that enclosure, we’ve been able to split the groups in about 10 minutes.”