Evaluating Stockmanship

John Yost, OSU Extension Educator, AgNR, Wayne County (originally published in Progressive Cattle)

Efficiently handling cattle requires more than just good facilities.

Over my career I have had the pleasure to work cattle with a lot of different people.  To me, there is no job more enjoyable than working a pen of cattle with a team of stockmen that I call friends.  Afterall, there are many places across the country were processing day is as much a community event as it is a cattle management task that just needs to be completed.  Familiar family, friends, and neighbors come together to help each other out.  When the time comes, each member of the group knows what their job is.  After all, they may have been filling a role for decades.  Each year, the same people show up to help, taking their position on the dance floor, and get to work with the only discussions being friendly razing about the calf that keeps avoiding the loop.  It becomes a thing of beauty and is only interrupted when the enthusiastic, younger, generation is given an opportunity to find their place in the well-orchestrated event.

I have also been on the other side of coin.  There are times when you might think that you are herding cats rather than cattle.  At some point, you begin to get frustrated and just stop, wondering “what’s the plan here”.  You may be at an unfamiliar facility, trying to learn a new setup, or there are different team members with whom you don’t have a working relationship and haven’t learned how to communicate with.  This may be a more frequent situation as more and more operations deal with high employee turnover and a lack of experienced candidates.  It is a rarity to have a staff that has worked together for 20 plus years and have that family-style cattle working atmosphere that we grew up with.  As a manager, it is up to you to bring the team together and find the way to get the most out of each member.

At the operational level we have a series of great tools to understand the quality of our group stockmanship.  The NCBA Beef Quality Assurance Self Assessments have been designed to provide reliable information on how you are performing as a team.  As general themes, the assessments seek to discover if appropriate management protocols are in place to ensure the implementation of scientifically based, industry recognized, Best Management Practices.   Within these evaluations, highly reliable, animal-based measurements are utilized to determine the quality of stockmanship.  Specifically, the BQA Assessments ask that 100 head of cattle be observed to determine the number of cattle that: are touched with an electric prod, fall upon release from the chute, stumble/trip when released from the chute, vocalize in chute before procedures, jump or run when released from the chute, or miscaught with the headgate and not readjusted while in the chute.  Thresholds for each criteria have been established to create a pass/fail evaluation of the operations cattle handling quality and identify if potential deficiencies exist.

If deficiencies are determined, it can be a challenge to know what the cause is.  There could be a facility issue.  Is the pressure to high on the hydraulic chute, is there a design flaw in the flow of the handling system, is it a single employee causing an issue, or is it how they are functioning as a team?.  Facility issues are usually the easiest to figure out.  Although we may not want that to be the case, given what you may have paid to get the equipment.  Employee issues can be much more complicated, as it may not be obvious what has gone wrong.

As a part of my graduate work, I was interested what employee actions may contribute to handling deficiencies within the operation.  To help evaluate the process, I developed the Stockman’s Scorecard.  The Scorecard assigned a point system to stockman actions that would be detrimental to the cattle handling activity.  The criteria evaluated includes subjective measurements around the themes of situational awareness, handling skill, and the use of noise and handling aids.  Specifically, the subject begins with 100 points, and deductions are made for: over filling the crowd tub, not working as part of the team, allowing animals to run, not controlling flow through a pinch point, being unaware of the point of balance concept, using excessive vocal/artificial noise, creating metallic noise, excessive physical force, and over using electric prods.  Similar to the BQA Assessments, the Scorecard as the evaluator to observe the employee work 100 head of cattle.

Between March of 2018 and April of 2019, we assessed the overall operation at 39 Texas feedyards and 87 separate employees.  The BQA Feedyard Self Assessment was used to evaluate each operation and two employees were observed separately to be scored using the Scorecard.  When we compared the activities of the stockmen at facilities that passed the handling portion of the Assessment against those at facilities that failed, there were some identifiable teaching points (Figure 1 above).  Employees at feedyards that passed the Assessment were more likely to:

  • Fill the crowd tub less than half full
  • Control the movement of cattle through pinch points, such as gate openings
  • Apply the proper amount of pressure to encourage positive animal movement
  • Limit the use of electric prods
  • Use the appropriate amount of physical contact with livestock to encourage movement

Whereas employees at those facilities that failed the Assessment were more likely to be seen:

  • Overfilling the crowd tub
  • Not controlling animal flow through pinch points
  • Being slow to add/remove pressure while moving cattle
  • Over using electric prods or using them at the wrong time
  • Use excessive physical contact to force animal movement

I have a good friend that likes to conclude his stockmanship presentations by telling the participants that “Just like life, cattle stockmanship is a journey”.  He impresses on them that as with any journey, the most important step is the first step.  As stockmen, we are all on the same journey, we may be at different points on that journey but there is always another step to take in improving our cattle handling skills.  There are some great programs offered around the country to make us better livestock handlers.  None of them may be perfect, as we are imperfect, but there is something that we can learn from each.  For me, there isn’t a better journey to be on.