Life lessons learned while working the back yard

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – Station Manager, Dampier Downs.

Working with animals is arguably the best aspect of cattle station life. Whether it is dogs, horses, poddy calves, or cattle, animals add colour and character to our lives. However, as with all things worth-while, working with animals can also be challenging, frustrating, and – at times – serve up a generous slice of humble pie.

Below are a few important lessons I have learned through working the back yard.

The longest way to anywhere usually involves a short cut

We’re all busy. We all have a million things to do and not nearly enough time to do them. The temptation to take a short cut can be sometimes overwhelming. If I could just hurry this mob move along a little I could get on to the next thing on my list, right?

Unfortunately, no. Pretty much every time I’ve tried to cheat with cattle to speed things up it has ultimately cost me more time, energy, and grief than if I had just done it properly the first time.

Lesson learned: The most important job I have to do today is the one I’m doing right now. By focussing on getting the current job done efficiently (as opposed to quickly) I actually save myself effort and gain the satisfaction of knowing the job has been done properly.

If you want a result, you are going to have to negotiate

Cattle are brilliant communicators. Humans, unfortunately, are not. Every time I step into the yard I consider I am having a conversation with the cattle. Of course, this communication is non-verbal and is all about body language and position.

I also consider moving cattle to be a negotiation. There is no physical way I can get an animal (other than a very small calf) to do something it doesn’t want to do. Therefore, if I need to move cattle through a gate, I need to ask them politely. It all comes down to my position, the amount of pressure exerted, and the timing of release of that pressure. Get that right and cattle will flow smoothly. Get it wrong and it is likely to be a stressful day all round.

No amount of shouting, waving poly pipe, flapping brightly coloured objects, or jumping up and down will help if I haven’t asked the right question in the first place (i.e. I am working in the wrong position or have applied too much/too little pressure).

Of course, I also need to ‘listen’ to what the cattle are telling me. A big part of this is being able to assess the energy – or ‘mood’ – of the mob. If cattle are already agitated, there is zero benefit to applying more pressure. This will only inflame the situation and cause no end of frustration. Instead, it is far more sensible to approach the cattle quietly, take the run out of the lead animals and calm everything down. This gets the cattle into a mind-set where they can think logically (as opposed to simply reacting to pressure and threats) and sets up a climate of cooperation rather than opposition. On the flip-side, if you have very docile cattle that barely notice you, you may need to up the anti a little. Negotiating with livestock is not about systematically ticking off a checklist, it is about allowing the animals to tell you what you need to do and where you need to be.

Again, this is done through body language and you ignore this side of the conversation at your own peril. It is much the same with people. If you need to get an important point across and the person you are talking to is already angry or upset, you’re not going to achieve much by going in aggressively yourself – no matter how strongly you believe you are right. You are likely to simply end up in a screaming match where neither side is listening to the other. Similarly, if the person you are talking to is completely disinterested in what you have to say, there is no point mooching around in the background hoping they will eventually notice you.

Lesson learned: The art of negotiation is one of awareness and empathy – and a little practice.

To move forward, you might have to back up a little first

Most humans come with a healthy dose of ego. We consider ourselves the smartest animals in the yard and, clearly, our way is the best way. Unfortunately, as humans we also come fully equipped with predatory instincts.

Cattle know this and as prey animals are often distrustful of situation into which we would put them. We know that by moving through this gate they will end up on fresh hay and water. The animal, however, may see things a little differently. From its perspective, it is being asked to move from a large, relatively safe space through a very narrow opening crowded with other animals with no clue as to what lies on the other side. This can be stressful for animals and some will be reluctant to do so.

When a cow bails up in a gate the smart thing to do is back up and give it space. This may seem counter-intuitive to some, but it gives the animal time to assess the situation, consider its options and – more often than not – decide that following the rest of the mob through the gate is actually in it’s best interest.

Lesson learned: Constantly haranguing someone to commit to a decision they are not ready to make is rarely effective. However, presenting a consistent argument and allowing them time to work through the pros and cons for themselves is more likely to lead to the result you want.

When it is all going wrong, it is my fault (and this is actually a good thing)

There is nothing more frustrating than having an uncooperative mob of cattle. You’ve been choking on dust in the back yard all day but there is always one miserable old biddy who won’t go through the gate, and ends up taking the whole mob with her. Then, to add insult to injury, a cranky old thing comes out of nowhere and chases you up the rails just as the boss comes along to see what is taking you so long.

Clearly, it is all the fault of the cattle and the only option is more force. While it may be superficially comforting to blame your woes on ‘the one in every mob’ it is, unfortunately, complete rubbish. The reason the cattle aren’t cooperating is because you are screwing up.

Instead of taking this as a criticism, consider it an advantage. If it really were the fault of the cattle there would be nothing you could do to improve your lot. By accepting you are to blame you can change what you are doing and therefore effect a different result.

As a wise person once said to me: “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted”.  Let’s face it – it is often hard to know what to do without first learning the hard way what not to do.

Lesson learned: It’s OK to make mistakes – everyone does it. What is not OK is to not accept responsibility and to transfer blame to the rest of the world. Instead, consider these occasions as opportunities to learn how to do better next time.

Don’t sweat the small stuff (but don’t discount it either)

Weaners and pellet calves (for a definition of pellet calves see last year’s blog ‘Kids Today’) may look cute and unassuming but should not be taken lightly. The same principles apply when working ‘kids’ as when working grown cattle.

Just because we can man-handle a calf doesn’t mean we should. And just because you may out-weigh it, doesn’t mean it won’t fight back. Calves can kick and when they connect they can cause a significant amount of pain to unprotected shins. If sufficiently backed into a corner, weaners will attempt to smear you against the rails. While you may not end up with broken bones, they are big enough to send you black and blue.

If you find yourself getting kicked in the butt by the little things in life you are obviously doing something wrong. You’re either trying to take a short cut, failed to ask the right question, misread the situation, have failed to consider an opposing perspective or are assuming the use of force is the most appropriate approach.

Lesson learned: Slow down, take a deep breath, forgive yourself what’s happened previously and have another go. If you are truly committed to achieving your goal you will get there in the end. Just be prepared to eat a fair bit of dust along the way.