If We Could Talk to the Animals

The popular children’s stories about Dr. Doolittle, later made into two movies, featured a veterinarian who could converse with his patients. It is the stuff that dreams are made of for people who work with cattle, if we could just hear exactly what they are thinking.

Judging calf

Okay, so maybe I don’t want to know everything they are thinking.

Think about it, there’s so many things I’d like to ask cattle. Like which grasses are the tastiest, why they prefer one spot to lie down over another, or exactly how they know which gate I forgot to close 20 minutes after I have left that pasture.

Open gate explanation

Okay, yeah, I know the answer to that one.

But there is one way that ranchers and farmers talk to cattle, and that is through a technique called low stress handling. This language doesn’t use vocal commands or writing. Rather, it is how a person positions his or her body that tells the cattle what we’re asking them to do.

One individual that was central to developing this language was Bud Williams. He recognized that certain ways of communicating our intentions to cattle caused the cattle to respond in a predictable, positive manner. Bud has passed on, but several others have taken up the mantle in bringing low stress handling to the entirety of cattle farmers and ranchers.

While all of this “language” is too much to explain in a simple blog post, one important part was knowing how to ask an animal to move, and then to say thank you when it does move. In short, this involves moving politely towards an animal. When the animal moves in the correct direction, instead of moving with the animal it is best for the cattle handler to take a step back. This step back is a “thank you” for moving in the correct direction. This shows the animal the action was correct. Through building this trust between cattle and cattle handler, moving cattle from location to location becomes a more positive experience.

Thank you cows

So much love here on the ranch.

Low stress cattle handling is making a huge impact on ranches and feedyards across the country. It also illustrates that farmers and ranchers do not rest on their laurels, but are constantly looking for ways to improve how they manage their cattle. And we’ll keep working to do so, until we can finally translate all of cow language into English.