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Bunch quitters are made, not born — understanding counterproductive human behaviours and how they affect cattle handling

Cattle have herd instinct. Bunch quitters are made, not born. If we are adequate with the pressure we apply and precise with our movements and position, cattle are very happy to be in a herd. In fact they would rather join and follow the herd than leave it as long as the herd is a safe place to be. Have you ever observed how quickly a bunch of cows will leave a pasture through a gate that was accidentally left open? Then you have seen how powerful herd instinct and movement can be. It starts with one cow finding the open gate and rapidly progresses to the point where the pasture is empty — without any help from us. Yet if it was our intent to move them out the gate quite often it would be a lot more difficult. Why is the gate more difficult to find and get through when people are added to the equation? It is these counterproductive human behaviours that undermine our best intentions.


We evolved as predators and we tend to behave like predators when we work cattle. Predators want to circle, they want to get behind to close the distance, and when cattle run predators want to chase and at least control if not capture. Human predator instinct and behavior is very strong. Our instinct is so strong that it commonly overrides our powers of logic and reasoning. The majority of problems we encounter working stock are a result of letting our instinctive behaviors and urges guide us with regard to where we position ourselves and how we pressure the stock. Almost invariably we end up pressuring at a position, at a time and in a manner that is counterproductive.

An example of this is our behavior when we get cattle close to our destination be it the gate, the corral, the barn or the back of the stock trailer. The closer we get the more pressure we instinctively want to apply. Just when the animal is right at the threshold is when we feel the strongest urge to rush the cow slap, poke, or prod her to make sure she goes. Whether she goes or not we communicate to her that the closer she gets to where we want her, the more pressure sheíll experience, or in other words the more unsafe her life becomes. We teach her unintentionally that these are not safe places to be. Even if we do get her this time we usually have done a good job of training her not to want to go there again. We create negative associations with the crowd tub or the corral gate or the creek, or the bridge, or the squeeze chute and then we assume that the cows donít want to go there because they are afraid of ______ [fill in the blank]. We do a good job of making ďthe right thing difficult and the wrong thing easyĒ. Donít conclude that it is wrong to pressure cattle at gates or the back of the stock trailer, it isnít, but we need to learn where, when, and how to pressure, to get the job done in a way that will make the cow easier to handle the next time not more difficult, that will communicate to her that where we want her is safe enough that she can handle it without having to panic and run off. Ideally we want to shape it up so the cow is given the choice and we are able to let her choose on her own to walk into the barn for example. More importantly we need to teach our cattle to respond to pressure appropriately and get them responsive to pressure before we ask them to do things they may not want to do.

Another example of counterproductive instinct is sorting at a gate or in an alley. How often have you had an animal coming down the alley or to the gate that you donít want to let by, so you step across in front of it and step forward to stop it and as you do it speeds up? Then you start yelling and waving your arms and stepping forward more and it charges past you, eyes closed, full speed ahead. Years ago that cow would have gotten an old hockey stick right across the bridge of the nose. We do a good job of training her that the next time when she eventually decides to muster up the nerve to come by us again she makes darn sure she is going 30 miles an hour. We certainly arenít training her to walk by us. I would much rather sort cattle at a walk than cattle that feel they have to run. When you step into a cow coming down an alley and you get more speed from the cow she is telling you that stepping into her is only going to get you more of what you donít want. She is also telling you that your best chance of stopping her is to backup there-by gaining position and releasing pressure. Stepping back, away from a cow to stop her is not an instinctive reflex, but if you can learn to do it, you can be much more effective.

Working single animals is one of the more challenging jobs. Many people have such difficulty with this that they no longer even attempt it. They will leave an animal of theirs in the neighborís herd all summer until the cattle come into corrals and can be sorted and the animal loaded on a trailer to be taken home. A common scenario is driving a single steer down a fence-line toward a gate. We typically get right to the gate when the animal veers off the fence and away from the gate. Letís say the fence is on the left as we are facing the gate. In that case when the steer veers away from the fence it will be going to the right. Our instinctive response is to try and cut the steer off by angling up toward the steers head in an attempt to cut it off to turn it back towards the gate. Because our position /angle of approach is pinching into the shoulder or neck we almost always get more speed. Even if we do get a turn as opposed to the steer just running by us the speed pushes the animal so hard back to the left that we are seldom able to get another turn back to the right. It is just like over-steering a vehicle on gravel or an icy road, we can easily lose control.

Control of our instinctive predator urges and behaviors is critical to success with stock. You should always know why you are positioned where you are, why you are pressuring when you are, and why you are changing position when you do.