Low stress stock handling training

A fresh perspective on an age-old practise was offered at the low stress stock handling course held in Needilup in March.

The course could have been more aptly named ‘advanced’ rather than ‘low stress’ stock handling. Most of the 27 participants have many decades of stock experience behind them. The trainer, Grahame Rees from Low Stress Stockhandling, put a different spin on that accumulated knowledge.

The concept behind the training is that you work with the natural instincts of herd animals to get them to stop when you want them to stop and move when you want them to move, by applying pressure in the right places.

The four basic instincts we worked with during the two days were:

Animals move in the direction they are facing

Herding animals want to follow other animals

Animals want to see what is pressuring them

Animals want to have pressure released

Whilst these behaviours are no doubt familiar to anyone who works stock, the more challenging element of the training was to adopt new ways of interpreting and using them, whilst letting old habits or interpretations go.

We learned:

The flight zone is the region in which pressure causes an animal to react. Identify it, respect it and learn to use it.

Every mob has a lead, a middle and a tail and this will constantly reform. Pay attention to the lead animal – the best and/or the worst in the mob. She is the one with the largest flight zone and the most panic movement. Work her first. We have a tendency to work the back animals but they are the ones with the smallest flight zone.

Animals won’t choose to come into your flight zone. When you move into theirs and apply constant pressure they either run away or fight (move into the pressure).

The ubiquitous poly pipe was jettisoned from the yards. Whilst it offers a sense of (false) security to us, from a herd animal’s perspective, if you are close enough to use it, you are within its flight zone and therefore applying constant pressure. Its instinct will be to either run away (which it can’t do in the yards) or fight. Be aware that an individual’s flight zone may extend outside of the yard it is in.

When pressure is applied it must be released. When the animals move correctly, reward them by stepping back.

Those stragglers at the back of the mob drop not because they are weak, but because of constant pressure.

Conversely, if an animal stops and looks at you, you are either too far in behind it (and it can’t see you so it is stopping to check where you are) or too far away (in which case the animal is giving you permission to reduce the flight zone).

Body language is the strongest form of communication with an animal. The way your body faces is important. Be mindful that your face radiates the most pressure. Use it wisely!

The yards rang with new language. Surprisingly clean! By the end of the course we were working in the ‘push’, ‘retard’ or drift’ zones of an animal’s eye, checking for ‘panic movement’ and getting stock to ‘bend off pressure’. Well, sort of.

We worked with both sheep and cattle and were advised to train mobs in the paddock before even getting them into the yards. Between the 27 of us, we well and truly trained Pete and Jolene Daniels’ mob of merino ewes to the point where they would even walk through a gate past a man leaning against one of the strainers (facing away from the mob). Grahame upped the ante with the last team to get the mob in – two people leaning on the strainer posts at either side of the gate - but that was a man too far according to the mob.

We have to thank Grahame Rees for a really valuable course and the FBG’s President, Jolene Daniel for initiating and persisting with the event. Special thanks to Jess Bailey, the FBG’s administrative officer, who handled all of the administration and worked hard to get so many registrations. Thanks also to Pete and Jolene Daniel for hosting the course at their place and supplying the sheep and to James and Sandra Lyall from Pingamup Creek for allowing us to work their cattle.

Leonie McMahon