Clinician Whit Hibbard perpetuates Bud Williams stockmanship
Theory in practice
Levi Forman and his brother, Luke Forman, operate the Cecil Brown Ranch, started by their grandfather, near Knowlton, Mont. Both attended the low-stress livestock handling seminar and say they came away with a new appreciation for working livestock.
“Our family has always focused on trying to work very slow and steady around our cattle, but these low-stress methods took all that to a new level – it really showed us there is more to stockmanship than just being calm,” Levi says. “It seems like a really good approach that will accomplish the things we have always tried to do.”
Luke agreed. “It really puts some science behind the methods,” he says. “That really helped me – I like to know ‘why,’ before I do something.”
Levi noted that since attending the seminar, he has tried a few of the methods and worked with the foundational principles in mind and noticed small impacts right away. He says he was most impressed by the ability of people using the low-stress livestock handling in the examples Hibbard gave to do a significant project – one that would normally require a lot of hands – with much fewer people.
“Most of the time we don’t work with a large crew around, and it’s nice to know these things that can help when you’re on your own trying to move or sort cattle,” he says.
And avoiding a rodeo scene seems pretty advantageous.
“Every year it seems like someone gets hurt in some way on either a 4-wheeler or a horse accident, and it’s usually a result of chasing something,” he says. “If we don’t every have to chase things and have wild wrecks, it could really improve the human safety element as well.”
The romantic image of the dashing American cowboy — rope in hand racing after stampeding longhorns under the stars — is deeply embedded alongside the ranching industry. Despite the bravado, most ranchers realize that fast and wild is not necessarily the best way to handle livestock. However, good stockmanship is more than just calm and slow – it’s a series of doctrines, principles, and methods of working with cattle in non-conventional ways.
“Many hear the term ‘low-stress livestock handling’ and think that all they need to do is do what they’ve always done, only slower and quieter and that will be low stress,” says stockmanship clinician Whit Hibbard of Cascade, Mont. “Well, it’s not. We call this ‘slow-stress livestock handling’ because the animals are still stressed.”
Hibbard is a fourth-generation rancher and owner in his family’s Sieben Live Stock Co., and was a longtime student of the legendary stockman Bud Williams. His lifelong ranching roots provided a solid background in working cattle and traditional “cowboyin.’” But in 2004, Hibbard says he and his brothers made a commitment to learn and adopt low-stress livestock handling as part of their ranch business plan. The entire family and crew went to a Bud Williams Stockmanship School, and “we’ve used it with great effectiveness since then,” he says.
The term “low-stress livestock handling” was coined by stockman Allan Nation in 1990 to describe the unique livestock handling of Williams. It is defined as a livestock-centered, behaviorally-correct, psychologically-oriented, ethical and humane method of working livestock which is based on mutual communication and understanding. Practitioners refer to non-low stress methods as conventional livestock handling.
“A lot of stockmen who first undertake the study of low-stress livestock handling do so with the idea of simply ‘adding on’ some new techniques to what they already know. Little do they realize that low-stress livestock handling often entails a radical change in thought and actions,” Hibbard said.
Hibbard did more than just apply the low-stress methods – he became a scholar and advocate of Williams’ teachings. He launched the Stockmanship Journal in 2012, an online, professional publication providing in-depth articles on livestock handling practices and results. At first he refused requests to teach clinics, but in the interest of continuing the work of Williams, who passed away in 2012, Hibbard agreed to put on seminars.
Hibbard’s classroom-only workshops focus on the foundations, principles, techniques and applications of low-stress livestock handling, all based on the work of Williams. “Everything I teach is all Bud’s work – I’ve just put his teachings into a more structured format,” he says. He follows a tightly defined framework based on five foundations, “because before anyone can learn how to work cattle in a low-stress manner, they have to understand the foundations of the method.”
The Five Foundations of Low-Stress Livestock Handling
1. Mindset: Mindset is how you think about your cattle. Traditionally, livestock handlers view working cattle as a job that has to be done, with the approach of “this is how we’ve always done it,” or “cattle are stupid and we have to fight them to get them to do what we want.” Stockmanship requires being open to change and learning, and asking why before asking how and what. A good stockman must be willing to take responsibility for how his or her cattle act, have a desire to work cattle correctly, and have a desire to succeed.
2. Attitude: Hibbard says Williams always said, “Low-stress livestock handling is more than just a technique of working livestock, it’s an attitude about working livestock.” Aspects of a proper attitude include being positive, determined, confident, decisive, and committed. Also, a stockman must acknowledge the great degree to which cattle are sensitive to a handler’s emotions. Scientific research has shown a direct correlation between attitude and behavior of handlers and cattle behavioral response (and subsequent production and performance).
3. Reading Animals: Low-stress handling is based on communication between human and animal, which is done through technique. Hibbard quotes Williams saying “Every step you take and every step the animal takes we’re communicating, so you have to learn to read the animals.” Understanding and communication are based on one thing — proper position, and proper position is determined by reading the animals and evaluating their response. Hibbard says in conventional livestock handling we tend to make two key mistakes: first, when things don’t go right we force the issue, and second, we fall into the habit of doing the same thing over and over again as a memorized routine. “There is no one way to do low-stress livestock handling; that is, there are numerous techniques and each situation is unique and the best strategy is to read the animals,” Hibbard said.
4. Working Animals: Just like we work with a young colt or a stock dog we’re training, Hibbard notes the importance of training and teaching our cattle. Conventionally we view cattle as animals we need to conquer – much differently than how we view our horses, dogs or other pets. Practicing maneuvering cattle by asking them to speed up, slow down, or be driven is beneficial in developing responsive and manageable livestock.
5. Preparing Animals: Working with animals involves establishing control and leadership, whereas preparing them involves actual “dry runs” of future events such as weighing, sorting, processing, or loading out. Hibbard recommends physically taking the cattle through a practice of the production event. For example, run the cattle across the scale or through the lead-in and open chute. Showing them what is going to happen before it is required makes for a calmer and more efficient event when it is time.
The five foundations are key to building up to principles, then techniques, and finally applications.
Hibbard says, “No matter how good we get at low-stress livestock handling we never transcend the basics and we cannot skip any steps, and that includes the five foundational layers.”
This article is the first in a series on low-stress livestock handling. F
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