Others may say, “Low stress is great, but we’re also running a business and need things done in a timely manner, and low-stress stuff is awfully slow. Low-stress guys just don’t get it.” So which side is right?

Whitehurst billy
PAS / Makale Livestock LLC

Well, both. I’ve been on both sides of this argument. As a livestock owner with tasks to juggle and a short time in which to juggle them, I understand weighing the options for the biggest time benefit.

The cowboy side of me also realizes the more time I spend in the saddle herding and training my critters with as little stress as possible, it saves time and results in healthier animals, less stress to me and the livestock – and in the end, greater returns.

The question for the stockman who is in business to make profit is: How do I combine this to get the desired result both for and from my livestock? Let’s look at this from an objective viewpoint from both camps – and then from a third.

In Camp 1 are the biology, science-based folks who primarily look at the data and numbers. Camp 2 is the absolute stockman who looks primarily at the psychology of the cow (cowology) and pays less attention to science, numbers and time. These people say things like, “I know what the science says, but I also know from experience this works better.”


Camp 3 is what I consider to be the business-minded stockman. These are the artists who have figured out when and where to use which methodology and how to combine ideal with real.

Camp 1

First, look at Camp 1, the side that focuses strictly on science – the predator-prey relationship. Biologically, cattle are prey animals, an indisputable fact, and humans can be predators.

It doesn’t matter if we intend to be predators or not. If cattle perceive us as such by our actions, we have incited a predator-prey relationship, and our movement and handling of cattle becomes a game of providing cattle an “escape route,” and we set things up so the “escape” is the route we want them to take, hence using simple biology and science to our advantage. For some cattle owners, this may be the best they can do for several reasons.

They may simply not possess the skills nor have the time to learn them. Some will try, but they just don’t have the natural gift of stock handling. This may be the best way for them to handle their animals with the least amount of stress given their situation.

Most cattle operators in the U.S. are farmers or hobbyists who have 50 head of cattle or fewer. These folks don’t make their sole living from livestock, and from a simple financial and economic standpoint may not be able to invest the resources to become what most of us would consider a true stockman.

This doesn’t mean they aren’t making every effort to decrease stress on their animals. It doesn’t mean we have an animal welfare problem in our cattle herds nor that these people who aren’t interested in elevating their stockmanship skills are necessarily poor producers.

These are the people who tend to overcome a lack of stockmanship skills with facility designs and aids that take advantage of the biological predator-prey relationship out of necessity. We must remember that these folks are still trying to minimize stress on their animals to their best ability within operational restraints.

Camp 2

Now, Camp 2, the die-hard “take all the time you need and never force a cow to do anything she doesn’t want” low-stress camp. This camp needs to keep in mind that there are instances when time literally is money and we need to act accordingly. However, there are some scientific aspects of Camp 2’s philosophy that Camp 1 needs to investigate more.

The stress hormone cortisol has side effects that provide scientifically grounded reasons to minimize stress on livestock. It’s unrealistic to think no cortisol will be produced during handling. That’s why we call it low-stress and not no-stress handling.

When cortisol is produced, non-essential systems shut down or partially shut down, directing energy toward the “fight or flight” mechanisms within the body. Cortisol production is designed to be short-lived so the animal has more energy to confront a safety threat. Once the threat is removed, cortisol production stops and the body resumes normal function.

Two systems that shut down during cortisol spikes are growth and the immune system. During a fight-or-flight situation, the body has no need for those two systems, and therefore energy gets diverted to “survival systems.”

Another aspect is that the higher the spike in cortisol production, the longer it takes for cortisol to leave the body. So the higher the stress level, even if short-lived, the longer it takes for growth and immune functions to return to normal.

This is where Camp 1 needs to start listening to Camp 2 a bit more. Growth and immunity are key to any livestock operation. That’s not high science; that’s basic ranch economics.

Lower stress usually equals better immunity, more growth, better financial returns. We have now attached a biological reason grounded in science to apply to our psychological outlook on handling cattle.

Another argument in favor of Camp 2 is that while the up-front time investment in training both crew and livestock will be greater, the long-term time benefit will increase when implementing and maintaining low-stress handling techniques.

When we take time to allow cattle to learn the route through a corral system, they remember it in a positive way and don’t fear the corrals. The result is: They will pen easier, flow more fluidly during processing, behave more docile, produce less cortisol and save time and lighten stress to the crew and animals.

When we force animals through, they aren’t seeing the corral route as livestock, they are producing cortisol and being chased as a prey animal. During this scenario, cattle are more agitated in the pens and the chute.

A prey animal’s first instinct is “flight” when threatened. To resort to the “fight” instinct, she has to be stressed enough to feel flight isn’t possible, and she must turn and fight. The fighters are the ones who feel the most fear and produce the most cortisol. Now our “cowologists” in Camp 2 can start to communicate in a way the “biologists” understand.

Camp 3

Camp 3 contains the mature stockman. These are the ones who can blend the art of cattle handling with the science of cattle handling, a combination of camps 1 and 2.

They understand that it is possible to incite a predator-prey relationship when intending to maintain a stock-stockman relationship and how to avoid that mistake. They know when it’s appropriate to incite the predator-prey relationship if the stock-stockman relationship isn’t working.

One example is when she’s having calving problems and time is of the essence to get the calf out to keep mom and baby alive and healthy. They realize the need to train cattle and implement low-stress stockmanship in daily routines so that on “game days,” like when trucks are coming and minutes matter, stress levels are naturally lower.

They also realize that on “game day” it may be time to push harder for greater outcomes in the end. When we lean too far to one extreme or the other, we lose sight of the big picture.

Camp 3 is the stockman who understands the economics and time management needs of today’s progressive livestock operations. Camp 3 sees the big picture. Camp 3 invariably holds the best and most profitable stockmen.

Each of these great stockmen will have common threads. They typically have natural instincts that can’t be taught. They have been to both extremes on methods of stock handling at some point and say they still have more to learn.

Most importantly, they know why they do what they do. They want to do right by the animals, the industry, their families and consumers who trust us to do the right thing. Which camp are you in?  end mark

PHOTO: This group of cattle is trailing more in tune with the “cowology” of low-stress methods and moving in a natural herd-like manner with the handlers further away and applying minimal stress rather than being bunched up in a tight group with constant pressure applied to incite a predator-prey reaction. Photo provided by Billy Whitehurst.

Billy Whitehurst