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Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Working with Livestock
by A. Richard Cobb

A youth project involving livestock can be a wonderful experience for a young person as well as his/her family. The project teaches that dedication and hard work is rewarded, and it allows the family to work together in a number of ways. Having an understanding of livestock behavior can greatly add to the success of the project by allowing the young person and their family to understand why an animal behaves the way it does.

In any situation involving working with livestock, there are three ingredients that affect the final outcome. They are: the animal, the handler and the environment. Realize that the handler and the animals always in an environment and are influenced by the environment when ever an interaction takes place.

Let's look at each of these ingredients and how see they interact with each other. First, the animal: an animal's response to any situation is determined by it genetic makeup plus its amount of exposure to humans and the quality of the exposure it has had to humans.

Farm animals are classified as herd or prey animals. This means they find comfort and protection when they are part of a group and so strive to be in close contact with others of their kind. Realize also that a group can be any size. If only two animals are present, then they will want to be together. Sheep have the greatest desire to be part of a group (flock) followed by cattle, horses and hogs (herd). Handlers can take advantage of this instinct by allowing the animals to group together before working or moving them and by not moving one animal away from the herd or flock. Doing so will cause a great deal of emotional stress to that animal.

Animals that are used to humans and who have not been mistreated by humans will be easier to work with than those that have had negative experiences with them.

We also know that such factors as the age, sex, and the stage of the yearly production cycle an animal is in will have a tremendous affect on the ability of people to work with them.

An adult animal which has had positive exposure to people should be easier to work with than a young, inexperienced animal because they know what to expect. However, give an adult female a baby and she can become difficult to be around, or even dangerous, especially during birthing and for a period of time after birthing. Handlers must recognize this when working with birthing and animals and their newborns.

Finally, some animals do not have the genetic ability to accept novelty, or surprises, or change. They will react by running or charging, going berserk or by refusing to move. These animals make very difficult livestock projects or require a great deal of work to get them to where they can be trusted. Adult males can be extremely dangerous and should never be worked by inexperienced people or by only one person.

The environment is the second ingredient to consider when working with livestock. For the purpose of this talk, the environment is considered everything except the animal and the handler. At home it is the barn and surrounding area around the barn the animal has access to. Going to a fair, it is the truck or trailer the animal may have never seen that can cause stress. At a fair the new surroundings, the strange sounds and smells plus more people than the animal has ever been around, can cause a great deal of stress for an animal.

The environment is other things also. It is the temperature, the barometric pressure, the time of day, whether it is raining or snowing or the wind is blowing. The environment is such things as the sun shinning into the eyes of the animal or a chain clanging or a piece of wood lying on the ground. It is everything except the animal and the handler. The environment can and does change in a second, which means the way of working with an animal may have to change as quickly as well.

The handler is the third and most important ingredient involved when working with livestock. This is because only the handler has the ability to analyze a situation and make conscious changes for the betterment of the situation. The environment can and will change creating a new problem or helping cure an old one, but does not do so consciously. The animal, responding as its genetic makeup and experience allows it to can make changes, but not always for the best. It may panic or refuse to move or fight if it feels cornered. It is up to the handler to make changes for the betterment of the situation.

Sometimes it is difficult to make changes in the environment so it is best to work around it. An example of this would be to work animals early in the morning before the heat of the day.

Observation is the best tool a handler can use to work with animals correctly. Observation is not just using your site, it is also listening, smelling, touching and using you common sense plus other things. The handler should have an idea of what he wants to do and then observe the animal and the environment and make changes in the way the animal is handled or to the environment and then proceed. If there is still a problem a handler usually responds in a way that common sense and personal experience tell him is right. However, what he chooses may not work and so he will have to observe what happened due to the changes he made and make other ones. A good handler or livestock person never stops observing and making adjustments.

The attitude of the handler is what sets the tone of any interaction when working with animals. Good livestock people like the animals and being around the animals they work with. Some people are aggressive and force animals to do things they may not like to do, causing chaos in increasing problems. The handler should take the attitude that "slower is faster" and using his common sense and experience, allow the animals to move at their own pace rather than forcing them to move quickly. Extreme physical force and electric prods should not be used when working animals.

Attitudes can be adjusted if the handler is willing to take the time to understand the animals he is working with and to move them slowly taking advantage of the instinct of the animal.

For instance, all animals have "flight zones". This is the area around the animal that is its personal space or the space it will allow a person, or another animals, to approach before moving away. The flight zone, like the environment, changes all the time. It does not remain constant. It is influenced by many factors, examples of which are: if the animal is in a group, its flight zone will be smaller than if it is by itself. If the weather is bad, the flight zone is smaller, if more than one handler is present, the zone is larger than if only one person is present. If the animal is used to people and comfortable with them, the zone is smaller than if they are afraid of the handler or people in general.

Handlers should find the edge of the flight zone of a group of animals and then enter the zone. This will cause the animals to move away to adjust the zone size. If a person remains in the zone, walking calmly, the animals should continue to move at their own speed until they are where the handler wants them to be. If the animals are not used to humans, or if the handler moves too aggressively, the animals may scatter all over the pasture.

It is difficult to be a good handler everyday of the year. If you want to be a good livestock person you must work at it. Take your time, observe and think before you react. Try your best to be a good handler every time you work with animals realizing on some days it will be difficult. If you are having a bad day, it may be best not to be around the animals.

In conclusion, the handler is the most important ingredient when working with livestock. His attitude will affect the success or failure of any interaction. The handler can create a successful interaction by using common sense and learning from personal experience. They also need to learn to take advantage of the natural instinct of the animal, observing the animal, observing the environment, making changes in the environment, or by changing the way he works with the animals.

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