Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thoughtful Stockmanship

One of the best novels I've ever read is Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry.  Here is one of my favorite passages - the narrator (Jayber Crow) is talking to a professor at the seminary he is about to leave:

“'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time.' 
'And how long is that going to take?' 
'I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps.' 
'That could be a long time.' 
'I will tell you a further mystery,' he said. 'It may take longer.'” ― Wendell BerryJayber Crow
While Berry is talking about something much deeper (faith), I've found that this idea applies to my efforts to become a better stockman.  Whether I'm working with my dogs, herding sheep, riding or driving a horse or mule, or moving cattle, I find the process of learning - of observing, trying, adapting and responding to what the animals are telling me to be incredibly rewarding - for me, and (I hope) for the animals.

Steve Cote, who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho, has written another wonderful book entitled Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management.  He writes,
"The best handlers have the best attitudes. They watch, adjust, and constantly move to where the stock show them they need to be to get the job done right, all the time. 
"Put the same energy into learning and watching that you once put into chasing wild cows. No- body likes wild cattle, so why make them that way? Don’t tolerate wild ones. Change them by working them right. 
"Confidence in this method, backed with a little knowledge, will get things done right."
For me, these assertions capture the essence of stockmanship.  In many ways, I think, admitting that you don't know something and that you're still learning takes far more self confidence than insisting that you know what you're talking about.

Thoughtful stockmanship requires us to assume that if animals aren't doing what we expect or desire that they are trying to communicate with us (rather than misbehaving).  For example, if cattle won't go through a particular gate, a thoughtful stockman (or woman) tries to figure out why (rather than trying to go faster or yell louder).

Interspecies communication is complicated - especially when there are more than two species involved.  In my daily work at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, for example, I often ride a horse and use a border collie to move cattle.  Just think about all of the communication that has to happen in this scenario - the dogs are communicating with the cattle and with me.  The horse is also communicating with me and the cattle.  The cattle have to try to communicate with a horse, a human and a dog.  In all of these interconnecting networks, the human (me) is probably the least adept at understanding what the other species are trying to "say."  I have found that the faster I try to work, the more impatient I become - and and my ability to communicate suffers.

Which brings me to the pace of work.  I think one of the reasons that I find it difficult to work in a group of people with varying degrees of commitment to thoughtful stockmanship is that the pace at which I like to work seems slow (at least at first glance).  I don't try to get cattle (or sheep) moving - and keep them moving - at a brisk pace.  If I can get livestock moving, I release the pressure on them as a reward for their behavior.  To others, I'm sure that my backing off on the pressure seems to slow the work - to me, it seems to reward the livestock for doing what I've asked them to do.  Jerry Johnson, who cares for the UC Davis Animal Science Department cattle, talks about a former part-time employee, saying he never knew anyone who worked so slow and got so much done.  Going slow to work fast, in other words.

Finally, I use pressure and release from pressure to train livestock to move quietly and calmly.  Sometimes when working with others who don't use these techniques, I suspect that my colleagues see this release from pressure as timidity on my part.  However, I think stockmanship requires quiet confidence and an attitude of continuous learning.  The animals are always trying to tell us something; we must be thoughtful enough to understand them.

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