Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pressure dancing

If you’re a regular reader of my columns, you’re probably surprised to see the word ‘dancing’ in the title of this piece.

And I am such an unskilled, inexperienced dancer that I’m probably violating federal regulation in writing about it.

But have you ever heard of pressure dancing?

Pressure dancing is the phrase that comes to mind when I think about low-stress cattle handling.

Low-stress cattle handling is like a dance. The handler leads, the cattle follow. The handler guides, the cattle respond. They dance across square miles of prairie rather than square feet of ballrooms, communicating and coordinating their movements in a choreography unlike anything most people have ever seen.

Cattle are herding prey animals. They congregate in herds, and with eyes located toward the sides of their heads, they have a wide field of view and very acute, dichromatic distance vision. This makes them very good at spotting potential predators.

To the human eye, it’s easy to tell the difference between the substance of this cattle chute and the shadows cast by its various components. To a cow, however, equipped only with dichromatic vision, the difference isn’t so clear.
The way they respond to potential predators is the key to cattle handling in general and to low-stress handling in particular.

Cattle don’t automatically flee potential predators. If they did, they’d be constantly galloping across the landscape. To a cow; a fluttering plastic bag, a man, a pickup truck, a bear, a wolf – all are potentially predators at first sight.

Rather than flee at first sight, cattle assess the threat level and behavior of potential predators before taking the action they deem appropriate to remain relatively secure.

If a potential predator is spotted at long distance, cattle will simply keep an eye on it and wait to see how things develop. They’ll also alert the rest of the herd to the presence of the potential predator through visual, rather than audible, communication.

This communication system is nothing more than body language, but it’s intricate and complex. In fact, for those who’ve studied it, it’s in many ways quite beautiful. A change in posture. A slight raising or lowering of the head. A particular switch of the tail. A quiver of musculature along the back or flank. The flicker of an ear. It looks meaningless, even superficial. Yet those cues can alert in moments every cow scattered across a square mile, turning their attention to a single object faster than you can scan the horizon.

Familiarization with such ‘cow talk,’ with those visual cues, is a big part of low-stress handling. It’s part of what’s called “reading” cattle. It takes time, study and experience to even begin to be able to read cattle.

Another important part of reading cattle is understanding that while they’re instinctive herding animals, the herd isn’t a homogenous unit made up of identical parts. Cattle group together for many reasons, including for the level of individual safety that comes with numbers. But even though they group together as a collective herd, each animal is an autonomous individual. This is a critical thing to understand.

The low-stress cattle handler understands most of the how and the why of cattle behavior, and is familiar with (though not fluent in) their body language form of communication. The low-stress handler uses this knowledge to guide, rather than drive, cattle.

Guiding cattle works through the application of mild, indirect pressure -- by moving inside the animals’ comfort zone. When the herder violates the comfort zone, the cattle respond by moving away from the herder until they’ve reestablished their comfort zone. If the pressure was mild, the cattle move slowly and calmly. If the pressure was too vigorous, the cattle flee.

Cattle, both as groups and as individuals, have different sized comfort zones, depending on the situation, just as people have different comfort zones under different circumstances. For instance, you might feel perfectly comfortable sitting next to a complete stranger in a movie theater, yet be very uncomfortable if the same stranger stood as close to you in an empty parking lot. In the theater, you would stay in your seat. In the parking lot, you would move away from the stranger.

When moving cattle in an open field, say from pasture to a set of corrals, the low-stress handler places himself so that the cattle are generally between himself and the ultimate destination. He then moves back and forth in a line perpendicular to the direction he wants the cattle to move in. While moving back and forth, he crosses through the comfort zones of individual cattle, who respond by moving away from the handler and toward the destination.

Initiating herd movement in this fashion can be done on foot, from horseback, from a pickup truck, or from an ATV. “Reading” the cattle’s body language tells the handler how close to come and how quickly to travel. A well-trained handler can corral all but the wildest herd of cattle by himself and on foot, even if those cattle are spread out over a square mile or more. He has only to read the cows and apply appropriate pressure. Of course, he has to be willing to spend the time and walk the not-inconsiderable distance required.

“Pushing” the cattle by moving too quickly or by pushing too far inside the comfort zone will cause the animals to “raise the threat level” and become excited or stressed. It takes time and experience to learn where the line is drawn between guiding and applying stress. One useful tool is called the “rule of stop.” To put it simply, if an animal stops, turns sideways toward or looks directly at the handler, it’s time for the handler to stop and wait while the animal(s) adjust their positions relative to the handler back to a comfortable one.

The same rules generally apply when working cattle in a corral or pen, with a few minor differences. Comfort zones are smaller in a confined area, but the cattle are more sensitive to comfort zone violations. This is where reading body language, having the patience to take your time,  and heeding the rule of stop can make the difference between quietly sorting cattle or having a full-fledged rodeo. Again, it takes time and repetition to develop reading skills.

Another couple of things to keep in mind. In general, cattle only vocalize when under some form of stress, whether it’s a cow searching for a lost calf or an animal actually being predated. They don’t often communicate vocally, nor do they like loud noises, which they usually take as evidence of a dangerous threat. Therefore, yelling or whistling to move them isn’t a very good tactic. They may indeed move away from the sound, but they’ll be more stressed.

Occasionally it’s appropriate for the handler to vocalize, and this is generally when working a group of cattle in the confined area of a pen or corral.

As we noted before, cattle have a wide field of view, about 340 or more degrees, and possess excellent dichromatic distance vision. This is in part due to the wide spacing of their eyes, and it’s a fantastic tool for a herding prey animal to have. But it comes at the cost of poor near vision and depth perception. In a crowded pen or corral, individual cows can lose track of the handler, even when the handler thinks he’s in the plain sight of the animal. With enough experience, a skilled handler can read by a cow’s body language whether or not they can see him. The important thing to remember here is that if the animal has lost sight of the handler, she can easily be startled when she suddenly “spots” the handler, particularly if he’s well inside her comfort zone. This will not only increase stress, but is likely to induce a flight reaction. The cow may try to crowd in with others, jump a fence or charge a gate, or if she feels trapped, she may try to run right over the handler to escape the immediate threat and reestablish a comfort zone.

Therefore, in a close environment where one or more cattle may have lost sight of the handler, it’s appropriate for the handler to advertise his presence vocally by keeping a patter of talk going. It doesn’t matter want the handler says, but it’s important how he says it. His cow-talk should be in a low key monotone. Something like, “Okay girls, you’re all fine, just me back here, nothing to worry about, I’m just going to move over here a bit…” You get the picture. This kind of low key vocalization allows the animals to be aware of where you are, and how close, even if they’ve lost sight of you. Therefore you can nip a potential stressor in the bud by just talking quietly.

Finally, and back to vision again, I’ve noted above that cattle have dichromatic vision, poor near vision, and poor depth perception at close distances.

Dichromatic vision simply means that instead of seeing in three main colors like we do (red, green, and blue), cattle see in two main colors (yellowish-green and blue-purple). Combined with poor depth perception and near vision, confined cattle have trouble telling light, shadow and reality when it comes to corral fences and gates. Where there is strong sunlight and shadow present, they often miss open gates and try to cross through solid panels or closed gates. When they see a dark blob on the ground, they can’t tell weather it’s a dangerous hole or a shadow. The key to low-stress handling in these situations is patience, provision for good lighting and shadow elimination to the extent possible, and backing out of the animal’s comfort zone until they’ve found a path that feels safe to them.

Is that a shadow on the ground or hole you might step into, causing you to break your leg? You and I can easily tell it’s a shadow, but a cow, with her poor near-depth-color vision can’t really tell the difference.
One final thought – cattle can definitely sense your emotions. You are in charge, and if your can’t be calm and professional when working your cattle, you might as well give it up for the day until you can control your emotions, or hire cattle handlers who can control their emotions and be professional.

By the way – I may have coined the term “pressure dancing.” I can’t seem to find any citations on the internet.

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