Low-Stress Cattle Handling at the French Ranch

It is officially the first day of autumn! Since my last entry, areas of the United States have been coping with hurricanes, while in drought-stricken Montana we went from a high of 96oF on Monday, September 11th to 43oF on Thursday, September 14th with snow at higher elevations.  In south Phillips County we have received a blessed inch and four tenths of rain!  Although the grasses have predominantly dried and we expect little, if any, fall growth, it does make us hopeful that the autumn will be cooler and wetter, providing some sub-moisture for spring growth.  The precipitation, however, did not impede our fall cattle work, which has included sorting heifer pairs from steer pairs, preconditioning calves, and pregnancy checking yearling heifers.

Each type of cattle work requires us to utilize the principles of low-stress livestock handling, whether that is in the pasture or in the corral.  Low-stress livestock handling “is a livestock-centered, behaviourally-correct, psychologically-oriented, ethical, and humane method of working livestock based on mutual communication and understanding, not coercion” (Stockmanship Journal, 2017).  Although Temple Grandin has publicized and popularized animal behaviour in the public eye, at the French ranch we apply the principles of Bud Williams.  The two philosophies have the same objective but different principles:  Both individuals emphasize animal psychology; but where Temple Grandin focuses on mechanical applications by building facilities in a specific way, Bud Williams prioritizes correct human behaviour so as to handle animals in a “normal frame of mind” no matter where the cattle are handled.  If you have ever worked with horses, the concept of “pressure and release” should be familiar; working cattle involves the same principle.  We apply pressure to direct cattle movement, and release that pressure when the cattle respond correctly.  As with any animal, some cattle are more reactive and require little pressure to respond, whereas others are less reactive and require more pressure.  The amount of pressure is determined by reading the cattle rather than forcing them to respond.  As we work cattle in the fall, the stockmanship foundations and principles of Bud Williams are applied in the pasture and in the corral.

We sort steer pairs from heifer pairs in late summer so that when we ship steer calves in the fall, we handle the cattle as little as possible in the corral to minimize stress on the animals and increase performance at the scale.  Animals, on average, lose 0.5% of body weight for every 30 minutes in the corral (Smith, 1998).  Furthermore, calves that are less stressed at weaning remain less stressed as they travel to their next destination.  Consequently, these calves are healthier and better transition to their new environment.  When we sort from horseback in the pasture, we have no means to positively identify cow-calf pairs other than by observation; our calves are not ear-tagged or otherwise identified with their mother.  Therefore, it is essential that we keep the cattle in a “normal frame of mind” so that they are not trying to escape us as prey animals would predators.  As we continuously work to improve our stockmanship skills, we have become more efficient and effective at sorting, and have been able to increase the number of pairs that we sort in a single day.  This year, my husband and his family were able to sort about 650 pairs into steer and heifer groups in one (long) day.

Although stockmanship under Bud Williams emphasizes behaviour over mechanical livestock handling, and even suggests minimizing facilities altogether, there are certain times throughout the year when working cattle in the corral is necessary for us.  Preconditioning calves and pregnancy testing cows are such times.  We use a system of portal panels that are set up in the pasture.  Craig and Conni French, Wayne’s uncle and aunt who have worked on the ranch for many years, have been utilizing these panels to develop a system for working the cattle in a low-stress corral environment.  The corral design, which Craig and Wayne continually tweak and look to improve upon, promotes cattle movement based on low-stress principles and incorporates one of Bud Williams’ contrivances, the “Bud Box.”

View of the Bud Box from outside the corral, looking down the alley. Cows are corralled from the left side and sorted into the alley from the right side.

In the corral, we work cattle on foot rather than from horseback, but keeping cattle in a low-stress state of mind starts in the pasture during the gather.  We pick up or start cattle using low-stress livestock handling so that when they enter the corral they are calm.

Pairs walk, not run, into the corral even when the gather didn’t go as planned

We set up two conjoined pens with an alley in the middle and corral with one pen open into the other.  As we sort from the second pen the cattle move naturally back to where they came from, and then move down the alley to the “Bud Box” (see photos).

Wayne and Bill walk steer calves down the alley into the Bud Box. Cows have already been sorted and worked out of the corral

When loaded in the Bud Box, cattle are calm and are then able to move around the handler into the working alley.

Cows move out of the Bud Box around Craig and into the working alley at a branding this spring.

Whether the animals are calves to be preconditioned, or mama cows or yearlings to be tested, the same livestock handling techniques are applied.  Using this design, cattle can be worked safely and calmly by anyone, whether that is Wayne, Bill (who is 83 years old), or myself with a baby on my back.

Yearling heifers stand calmly in the Bud Box waiting to be moved into the working alley and pregnancy tested.


The logistics and reasoning for preconditioning will be discussed in future posts, but I hope that the importance placed on stockmanship in all facets of working cattle has not been underemphasized.  It is only recently that the role of stockmanship in range management has been fully appreciated: the Society for Range Management incorporated low-stress animal handling in its field tours as recently as 2015.  The ability to manage grazing through the use of placing cattle; directing grazing to undesirable rangeland and away from riparian areas; or day herding and penning to trample club moss, are all made possible through livestock handling based on mutual communication and animal behaviour.  As ranchers, we understand that sustainability for the prairie ecosystem and for our business operations is dependent on the effective use of grazing animals, and low-stress livestock handling is an integral tool to achieving that objective.

Smith, B. 1998. Moving ‘em: A guide to low stress animal handlingKamuela, HI: The Graziers Hui



Anne Johnson, DVM 
The First State Bank of Malta