What is stockmanship?

Stockmanship is how ranchers interact with their animals with a focus on keeping the stress meter low for both the handler and the animal. Most cattle start their life cycle on ranches in large pastures. Here in Arizona, most cows calve alone and don’t usually need human assistance, but ranchers do interact with their cattle regularly. To raise high-quality beef, cattle must be healthy, and ranchers can help their animals achieve that goal with a vaccination program. Vaccinating, along with branding and other activities, does require ranchers to work closely with their animals and good stockmanship can help make it easier on both the cows and the people.

Dr. Dean Fish of the Sante Fe Ranch Foundation and Anchor F Cattle Company is shown moving cattle on horseback which can be a low-stress method when used correctly.

Ranchers don’t put a leash on their cattle to move them like one might a dog. Rather, cattlemen and women use their bodies (and horses) positioned in certain ways to move cattle where we need them to go. To understand this concept better, we first must know a few things about cows. Cattle are prey animals, meaning they want to gather in herds because that gives them more protection from predators. They also have a flight or fight instinct and tend to run if they are frightened. Some breeds of cattle are more inclined to fight if put into a sticky situation, like if a predator tries to attack a cow’s calf. Secondly, they don’t often move in straight lines, but rather in circular patterns. Knowing these two instincts tells us how we can work with cattle to decrease stress on the animal and to increase productivity.

Cattle flight zones can vary greatly and depend primarily on breed, environmental factors, and the amount of exposure they’ve had to humans. Micaela McGibbon of the Santa Rita Ranch demonstrates a flight zone that is relatively small because these cattle are used to interactions with Micaela in this circumstance.

Think about a large invisible ring around a cow. This is her flight zone. Depending on breed and how much human interaction this cow has had, her flight zone might be small or large. Pressure can be applied by stepping into their circular flight zone, in a certain area to encourage her to move forwards, backwards, away, or even towards you. Also knowing how much pressure to apply, meaning how far and how fast you must walk into the flight zone, is critical. If an animal looks at you or maybe flicks an ear towards you but doesn’t move it probably means you have to step a little closer. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, if an animal jumps and runs away you might have walked too far into her flight zone or approached too quickly.

This graphic shows how the flight zone works. When you move towards the head of an animal they are going to turn away, while moving towards the back of the animal will move them forward. The point of balance, which is generally at their shoulder, is the point in which those movements change. Stepping into the flight zone will cause an animal to move while stepping out of the flight zone will cause it to stop moving because of the pressure you are putting on the animal. Image courtesy of the Beef Quality Assurance Program.

Working with these natural flight zones and movement patterns help to decrease stress on animals while increasing productivity. The less stress an animal experiences, the better, so they can put their energy toward making healthy beef. It also makes it safer for the human involved to utilize these skills as the animal is less likely to tap into their fight response.