Many hands make for light work... or maybe not

Feb 7, 2014
by WLJ

As iconic as the American cowboy’s boots, hat and lariat are his simple words of wisdom. Take, for example, the old Will Rogers quote, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” That’s a common sense recommendation, like “many hands make for light work.”

While the American cowboy cannot take credit for the latter, (that quote originated from poet John Heyward in the 1500s), they often use the theory when assembling a crew of 18-25 cowhands to work and ship cattle.

But as any seasoned ranch hand, ranch wife or ranch kid can tell you, problems will occur and stress rises when two or more crew members decide they’re the boss and begin ram-rodding the task.

“The key to handling cattle in a low-stress manner is that most people should act as herd holders and allow only one person to put pressure on the cattle,” explained Ron Gill, an AgriLife Extension Specialist from Texas.

Gill is one of several cattle handling experts featured in the Beef Quality Assurance’s video “Stockmanship and Stewardship: Creating and managing movement is the key to effective cattle handling.” The video provides 75 minutes-worth of low-stress cattle handling tips, techniques and memorable words of wisdom. The video also includes advice from experts Temple Grandin of Colorado, Curt Pate of Montana and John Maas of California.

“If you’re in a pasture and everyone is pressing on a set of cows, those cows won’t know where to go,” Gill explained. “As you bring cattle around to corral them, there needs to be one person putting pressure on the front and few in the back to keep the cattle moving, but everyone can’t be whooping and hollering.”

Gill used to work cattle with 17-18 people, but has since downsized the crew to four or six like-minded people who understand and can implement low-stress cattle handling techniques. “We get better production and have fewer injuries to cattle and people,” he said.

It’s important the smaller crew understands basic principles of cattle handling, like pressure zones and balance principles. A pressure zone is the area where the animal starts to move away or respond to you. A balance point is where the cattle will either stop and turn away from you or go past you.

“If the workers are not on the same page, I’d rather do it myself, because they’re likely impeding the flow that I’m building,” Gill said.

No matter the size of the crew, its members will likely have varying degrees of experience and capabilities. In many operations across the country, the most inexperienced person is sent to the back of the facilities to bring the cattle up through the system, but Gill says that’s the spot for the most experienced cattle handler.

“In my opinion, the most important part is getting the cattle into the system,” he said. This person is responsible for setting up the flow and minimizing the stress on the cattle.

Colorado State University Professor Temple Grandin, another cattle handling expert featured on the BQA video, agreed. If good flow is established at the back end, problems in the front end like rearing up, backing up or balking, tend to fix themselves, she said. “We can all agree on the outcome we want—a calm animal walking through the chute. Good handling starts in the back.”

“Never miss a good chance to shut up,” said Judge Roy Bean.

Bean, a colorful saloonkeeper and self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos,” imparted these words of wisdom in a sentence he handed to a criminal in the late 1800s. The same advice could be applied to working cattle.

According to Grandin, yelling, screaming and whistling are stressful noises for cattle. “Get your mouths closed,” she said.

Gill agreed and explained that big noises and big movements will likely cause pressure on cattle you didn’t intend to pressure at a time they’re not expecting it or you’re not expecting it.

“Be quiet and keep your hands down as much as possible,” he said, “then if you do need to move your hand or create some noise to get cattle moving, you’ll have those tools available to you.”

Instead of whooping and hollering, the experts agree that using pressure zones and balance points are much more effective methods for moving cattle.

“All the work we do in the corrals begins in the pasture when you first gather them,” said Pate. “When you put pressure on the livestock, let them have a chance to move away from you.” This teaches the animals to move away from pressure, instead of running scared from a loud ranch hand.

“When you give a personal lesson in meanness to a critter or to a person, don’t be surprised if they learn their lesson,” goes the quote.

According to Pate, each time we work with cattle, we are training them for the next stage of production. Therefore, it’s important to make each experience as positive as possible. It sets you and the cattle up for success later on. “We not only get the cattle to stay healthy and gain weight, but we also train them to take the pressures of the next stage,” said Pate.

Calving is the bottom of the pyramid. “If we treat them right when we first contact them, if they have a good, positive experience with a human, that’ll carry through for a long time.” Build on that principle at branding, weaning, shipping and so on.

More words of wisdom and cattle handling tips—for beginners and experienced cattle handlers—are found in the BQA video. To order one for your outfit, contact your state’s BQA coordinator or order online from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s online story at or call 800/525-3085. — Sheyna Strommen [This article was originally written for American Red Angus Magazine, republished here with permission.]