Training Pen Riders in Low-Stress Cattle Handling

By: Heather Smith Thomas

Pen riders are crucial for monitoring and moving cattle. They can also reduce stress levels in pens of cattle. Lynn Locatelli, DVM with attlexpressions in New Mexico, works with feedlots in the Midwest and Canada and says pen rider training is usually focused just on health issues and how individual animals should be assessed. “People seldom understand what good health checking actually entails. My approach is different because I integrate Bud Williams’ low-stress handling principles with veterinary medicine in training feedlot pen riders,” she says.

“A good pen rider gets to know the pen and unique characteristics of individual cattle. When pen riders can observe behavioral details about a pen and not just scan for sick cattle, they make accurate observations,” she says.

The most important thing is to develop trust. “Trust between cattle and handlers is necessary to identify early pulls,” she explains. When cattle are at ease with pen checkers they don’t become nervous or agitated; they are relaxed, doing normal activities and express how they truly feel.

“When pen riders rapidly move through pens, simply looking for sick cattle, the cattle may be fearful and alert, and can effectively hide sickness. This results in late pulls and compromised treatment response,” says Locatelli.

“When we get to know cattle by working with them, we can establish mutual communication. Pen riders can get the cattle to willingly work for them and can then identify abnormalities very early,” she explains.

When mutual respect and communication develop, handlers and cattle can work together comfortably, efficiently and safely. “The pen riders become super effective in getting a true read on that pen. Just as important, they can get single animals out of the pen in a quiet, relaxed manner instead of just chasing them out the gate,” says Locatelli.

Low-stress handling facilitates other important aspects of cattle care in a feedlot and saves labor. “If cattle trust the handlers, one person can easily move a single animal out of a pen without disrupting the others or stressing that animal. When feedlots use two people to chase an animal out of a pen, they need to learn about cattle handling. There are safety issues when chasing cattle, especially on slippery footing. Also labor is doubled, which is not necessary or economical. Most important, it is not low stress for the cattle.”

Locatelli helps train feedlot employees. “Often the people who haven’t done this before are good students,” she says. Pen riders who have already been cowboys have an idea about how they should handle cattle, and it may not be as low-stress as they think.

“People take pride in what they do—and that’s not a bad thing—but often the more seasoned riders aren’t as good at taking advice if we tell them to do something different from the way they’ve been doing things. It’s difficult to create new habits, and really difficult to change old behaviors. Cowboys may chase cattle around in the pens and think they are doing a great job,” she says.

Some people have innate ability to “read” cattle and can sense more readily when an animal is a little “off” and not at peak health, and are more tuned in to how cattle react to human actions. “Pen checking is a skill and an art. Whenever there is an art and ‘feel’ involved, some people are inherently more sensitive, tuned in to the animals,” she says.

“Bud Williams told us that the most important thing is attitude, however. If you want to learn and build skill, you will. It might be easier for someone who has a natural feel for this, but everyone who really wants to, can learn.”

“This year I’m working with some people who are walking through pens to check cattle. There are also some trainees who have never ridden, learning to check pens using horses. Anybody who wants to learn, can,” she says.

Attitude is transmitted to the cattle. “A person with the right attitude can do well in handling cattle. Anyone who doesn’t believe that, probably can’t read cattle,” she says. It’s interesting to watch how cattle respond to various people. Some strangers can walk in with cattle and they explode, whereas other strangers can walk into a pen and cattle readily accept them.

“This shows you how sensitive cattle are, in reading us. That’s a key point when training pen checkers, because cattle respond to them. Some people don’t know what to look for, regarding how the cattle are responding to them. Pen checkers shape behavior of cattle every day. This makes a difference in how cattle handle for other people in the feedyard who need to work with them or load them.” It is important to have competent pen checkers who interact calmly and effectively with cattle and gain their trust.

“Animal welfare is becoming more important to consumers, and to our industry. Pen checking is a big part of that.” People who can work quietly among cattle and pick up on disease problems early on—before the animal is very sick—can make a difference. They can move those animals gently out of the pen and get them started on treatment early, so they recover more quickly. Effective pen checkers create behaviors in cattle that make subsequent events low-stress—which is more efficient for the business and safer for handlers.
“Most important, is the effect good pen checkers can have on a daily basis, to de-stress the animals. We get a variety of cattle coming into a feedyard—from gentle animals to extremely high-stressed, high-health-risk cattle. Good pen checkers can create trust in all cattle, and more uniform behavior patterns. Pen checkers are vital in de-stressing cattle, and in creating behaviors in the cattle that make them easier to work—for processors and shippers,” she says.

It’s ironic that many cowboys/horsemen have a fairly good idea about how to train young horses utilizing patience, pressure and release, but less concept about training cattle. They know they should be patient with a young horse, but often don’t use the same level of patience when moving cattle.

“Management pressures and the ‘hurry up and get things done’ mindset often sabotage the good work that riders could actually do. Hopefully we are opening the eyes of staff and management to help each understand the value/skill of competent pen checkers,” says Locatelli. Cattle are extremely responsive to handlers and can be readily trained for ease of handling during production events, if people handling them can use proper low-stress methods.

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