By Kristen Kelderman, Farm Animal Care Coordinator, Farm & Food Care
The morning starts out the same each day. Staff wake early, drive to a small town meeting hall, unpack supplies, set up the projector and flip chart and try not to forget the ever important coffee and doughnuts.
After coffee cups are filled and neighbours enjoy a quick catch up with each other, everyone settles into their seats for the morning.
Recently I had the opportunity to travel around with Alberta rancher and cattle handling expert Dylan Biggs, his father Tom, and ranch employee Elizabeth in a series of handling workshops for Ontario beef farmers. These workshops were put on through Farm & Food Care’s IMPACT animal care program.
After a week of workshops, I’ve become familiar with the content, but each day is a little bit different and they’re certainly never boring.
Dylan’s casual approach and credibility instantly connects with the farmers in the room. Dylan and his family farm in a very different environment than most Ontario farmers are used to. Located about three hours north east of Calgary, close to the Saskatchewan border, they experience very low amounts of precipitation. This results in moving cattle much greater distances to sustain their nutritional needs on pasture.
On average it takes about 35 acres to sustain a cow/calf pair on pasture for a year. When you multiply this by hundreds of cows, you’re looking at a lot of ground to cover. Dylan grew up moving cattle across the Albertan prairies and had the opportunity to learn from legendary handler Bud Williams. He openly admits it wasn’t always easy.
He jokes that, “as kids if we wanted to hear some colourful language, we’d head out to the chute and help Dad process cattle.” Many farm kids still have similar experiences.
When we want cattle to go through a gate or down the road to another pasture, it’s a struggle. But when it’s the cow’s idea, the process moves much more smoothly. Why is this?
“We don’t expect a young pup to instantly know how to herd cattle or a young colt to ride out to the pasture on his first day with a saddle and not kick us off. We work to train them to be able to do these things. But with our cattle, we have a different attitude. We go out to the pasture and expect them to do what we want, without any training”, Biggs explains.
Dylan attributes handling frustrations to farmers not working regularly with their cattle and not fully understanding what a human’s body language means to the animals.
In a lot of situations our human instincts prove counter-intuitive when trying to move animals. This often results in colourful language, frustrated people and stressed out cattle which are definitely not a good combination.
“And whose fault is it when things go wrong? It’s always the cows. Right?” Biggs questions.
He’s been facilitating handling workshops for over 20 years and admits that ultimately when you’re moving cattle that the cow will tell you if you’re doing it right or not.
If you get the cattle through the gate or into the next pasture without problems, then you’re probably doing it right. But the reality is that we chase after our cattle a lot more than we’d like to.
The cow will react to what we are asking her to do. Every animal will react differently. Some cows require lots of pressure and encouragement to move while other more timid cattle require very little. The cow will indicate if we need to give her more space or if she needs more pressure to accomplish the task at hand.
Some take away messages from Biggs:
• Be patient, calm and willing to put in the time to work with your cattle.
• Practice makes it easier, not perfect. The more you work with your cattle and train them, the easier it will get.
• We tend to want to get right behind cattle and push from behind. In most cases, this is not an effective method. Being out to the side is our best vantage point.
• If you want to handle your cattle better, it’s going to take a lot more walking.
• Calling cattle and leading them with feed is okay, except when your call or the feed isn’t sweet enough and you need them to go through a handling facility like a chute. This is when being able to drive your cattle is a large benefit.
• Be aware of the subtleties of what your cows are telling you. Learn to read their body language.
Dylan shared advice and information on facility design, separating cows from calves, preventing runbacks and many more practical tips around the farm for keeping cattle and people as stress free as possible.
I’ve had the chance to meet some very interesting and passionate people who work in food and farming over my short career. They never fail to amaze me with their knowledge, their dedication and their humbleness. Having the opportunity to travel the Eastern Ontario country side with Dylan, Tom and Elizabeth was a definite highlight.
Here’s hoping that the next time I’m out with my family’s cows in our pasture, I’ll recall some of Dylan’s information and be able to keep my cool!