Learning from change: low-stress livestock handling at Vee Tee Feeders

In 1991, Bud and Eunice Williams moved to Lloydminster, Alberta to help Richie Davies, who with his brother owns and operates Vee Tee Feeders, one of the most northerly feedlots in North America. Richie, whose operation feeds freshly weaned calves from a variety of sources, was interested in the potential of Bud's handling methods in reducing costs and mortality.

About a dozen people work at the feedlot, many of them young women. Dawn Hnatow, who grew up on a nearby farm, has worked at Vee Tee Feeders since Bud came. "At first it was a challenge for some people," she says of Bud's method. "We could see that it worked, but it was different than what we'd grown up with." Last year Dawn helped a large dairy in southern Idaho incorporate Bud's low-stress handling methods, which boosted production and lowered costs.

The following excerpts are from the April 1998 Stockmanship School.

Bud Williams: Anybody who says we only have a short time to do something has just doomed themselves to fail in the first place. When I came up here, Richie and I had quite a conversation about what he wanted done, and then I told him he was looking at a minimum of two to three years. I went to do it in six months. That right there set us back three or four years.

I started out training people, like most people try to train a dog. I got nowhere.

When we finally reached the point where he and I both were finally willing to stop and take the time to do it right, we accomplished in six months what we'd been trying for six years to do, and hadn't got anywhere.

We were fighting, trying to do something from two different directions. And neither one of them was going to work. Finally you get tired of that. You decide that you really do want it to work.

Probably when I came up here--this is not being harsh--Richie probably really didn't want it to work. He's run a successful operation before I got here. If this didn't work, then--I've been doing it right for 20 years. This is always back there. It may not be a conscious thing, but it's back there with every single person in this room. And it's a very strong thing, whether you want to admit it or not. It's almost like, if they failed, then this vindicates what I've been doing.

He has done something that I don't know if anybody else would have done. If you're going to try to learn something new, you cannot have other people telling you what to do, because you're going to do what's old. So if you want to go work cattle a certain way, they cannot tell you what to do.

When I first came up here, I came up here on a mission. I came up here to teach people to do something that was quite difficult, and to do it fast. All I did was antagonize everybody, and upset myself, and got nowhere.

Now I don't do that anymore. I'm making progress, the crew is happier, it's easier for me. I do not go out there and try to make them do it right. I go out there and watch what they're doing and move so that what they're doing is right, no matter what it is. Then when we get done, I explain to them why I had to go up here, or go over here, because you were doing something that I've asked you not to do. We're making a lot more progress.

Richie Davies: What's done here isn't necessarily Bud's way. We bastardize a lot of stuff. Because of the learning curve. The human element is entering into it a lot. And that's right from the top, on the level of my brother and I, down to the last person hired.

One of the biggest things we've learned as an organization, is that a lot of the impediments to success were at the top, in my hands. At the very level where you had to let it happen, you were putting so many little restrictions, clinging to old ways that were totally unrelated to what we were doing. Until it was pointed out that they were the things that were stopping us. Management structures.

They'll be things that you'll cling to that you have no business clinging to. But it's the human element entering in there, that you'll want to cling to something, not totally turn loose of it. You're doing all these things that you're supposed to do. But that little thing that you're holding onto is probably the biggest impediment you got. You should always be searching for those. What am I doing here? What am I stopping my people from doing to really go ahead with this thing?

They know better than I do when something has to be done. That's been an enormous change in the last six months. We've really unshackled the crew to really step out and start doing some things. That's probably the most important thing.

People are working better together. I got out of the road and let the guys do the job, and that changed the whole nature of the group. Now they work better together, they know what's expected of them.

Right at this moment we have nobody mentally fighting what Bud's trying to do. Nobody that's here is trying to prove it doesn't work. Right now we have the best attitude we've had for a long time. Everybody's important, and everybody's job is important.

The actual physical technique of handling cattle right is very simple. But the mental anguish that you go through to actually subordinate yourself to that animal is unreal. And that's where a lot of your people problems come from.

You can't totally turn over and say I'm equal to that pen of steers. If we're equal, why am I controlling your lives so that I can kill you and eat you? But I've had an enormous change on how I view them. I have to view them in a totally different manner in order for them to benefit me as much as I know they can. It's not to quit dominating them, because we're going to dominate them. That's why we have them. But your mental approach to how you dominate them has to change. You can get enormous control from cattle by not doing the things that put them in a state of stress because you're around.

Bud controls animals way more than anybody, in the sense of control. They will let you have enormous control if you approach it properly.

Bud taught us to stop movement in freshly weaned calves. But then the lack of movement was too much. Calves died, and it was hard to spot sick ones. It became difficult to create movement without causing stress.

We pay for it more by doing both. By approaching them properly, and then changing. It's unbelievable how we can kill cattle--weaned calves--with that very thing.

One of the most surprising things is, you reduce the mental stress on these cattle, and then put it back on. We can kill calves better than feedlots that have never heard of what we're trying to do, because we'll whipsaw it. We do it part right and half wrong.

Our figures are all over the board. I don't need to prove to myself--and I haven't in the seven years Bud's been here--I don't have to prove this works. I know it works. If done right, it works. I don't have to keep checking, and documenting.

It's mostly human relationships. We all have the ability to handle cattle as well as Bud. We just have to do that one little thing that he does. When he goes out here, he doesn't want them to do anything. He has no demand on the animal. He subordinates the human ability to force everything in its environment to those animals, and he gets everything he wants. The human mind wants to fight that. Within that is the antagonism with each other.

You're trying to change, and you're irritated with this guy because he's not changing as fast as you, or you don't think he is.

People are going to want to try and do some pretty fantastic things that have never been done. From what I gather, a lot of you herding cattle on ranges, you'll be criticized by your neighbors and everybody else for doing it.

People--that's where it's all at. How do you learn how to deal with groups of people to get them to do what they say they want to do--and that is handle animals as nicely and as quietly and as beneficial to the animal as we can keep it. That's why we're all here.

Mental stress

Richie: Bud's methods change the way cattle are handled both mentally and physically. Typical handling practices provide a fertile ground for organisms to flourish. The industry pays lip service to physical stress. The real problem is mental stress.

There are some very adaptable bacteria. If we keep stress down and the calf healthy, the bugs do not have a chance. We need to treat causes--like stress--rather than symptoms.

Bud: We buy what everybody considers junk cattle, and we keep them there for three weeks to two months. We buy the cattle that most people would have the most trouble with. If we're doing the job right, we'll doctor maybe two or three a day out of 5, 6, 7,000. If we're doing it wrong, we can doctor 50 or 60 a day. You can change that from one or the other within one or two days.

It's given me an opportunity to constantly learn more. We have sick cattle, but darn few if we do it right. If we don't do it right, we get as many as anybody. Most of these cattle that are sick, we make them sick.

Richie: If it's done right in the way that Bud teaches, you can take a herd of calves from all over the place, singles from all the little farms around here, and they're a herd with an identity back into their lives.

Now start creating stresses in their lives that they don't understand. Bud's proved it to these guys. You go into a pen, and you're worried about them, so worry's the first thing they don't understand. You start staring at them individually and wondering which ones are sick. Now that creates a stress. They've settled in for a week or two, and they start to do those things, because they're worried or upset, or come out of a pen where they had a dead one, and they carry that worry with them. A pen will just go to hell on you.

He can go back into that pen and fix it. Nothing more than by taking that stress back off.

The calves are so in tune to that it's unreal. There's a whole area there, that they're reading us just like a book, and not understanding. But they know you're upset, worried, and all those different emotions that you take in there.

If they don't leave the coffee room in the morning in a good frame of mind, they're going to kill some calves. Because why are they upset? What did they bring to work from their own lives they shouldn't have brought?

The calves want to feel at home and comfortable in that pen, but this being is going through there, it's giving off vibes of something being wrong with it. They can't get away from this thing that they don't understand. It bothers them. It bothers them a long time after you've left. It's really hard to explain it.

Disease has been the best indicator. We get calves down with ITEME [infectious thromboembolic meningoencephalitis]. We've double vaccinated calves, single vaccinated them, not vaccinated them, there's a whole gamut that technology will tell you. We can create ITEME and remove ITEME just like that, just by that mental stress factor.

One of the first things we see a lot of times in those calves is we'll have a downer. You can have ITEME starting in a pen, and Bud will say, you're doing something wrong. Let's go look, and we'll stop it.

Bud: Let's say we have somebody come through this door back here, and they're just as mad as they can be. In just a few minutes, everybody in this room would be uncomfortable. I could say, well don't worry, they've just lost somebody, and they're very upset about it. Then everybody would relax. Okay, we can talk. As soon as people know, it's no problem. You can say these things, so it's not a problem.

You have a group of animals that somebody is going through and this person is upset, this person is mad, this is different than it's been. If you go through mad every day, it's not a problem. It is when you change. I can go through then, and convince those animals that it's okay. I do that by different things. I don't have to have any set thing.

What causes animals to get sick? If the only thing we're coming to talk about is how to doctor them, we're going to keep right on making them sick.

If I go through a group of animals, I will pull an animal as soon or sooner to doctor than anybody. But then I realize that there is something else wrong in this pen that I've got to correct--not just giving a shot to this animal I pulled out.

It's just like, if this group of people is upset, and you come in here and talk with them, because we can talk, so we don't have to walk around. But if you just walked around and put your hand on their shoulder, you don't have to say anything, that's okay. Basically that's what you're doing. Now there's ways of doing that, there's ways of getting the animals to move so they forget it. It's like something bad has happened to you, somebody comes and says, come on, you need to get out of the house, let's go for a walk. Sometimes we just take it for a walk. Sometimes we'll take it from that pen to another pen. We have a group of cattle, the girls are going through it, they recognize that the animals in this pen have changed from yesterday. So we may just take them out into the alleyway and take them up, turn them around, bring them back. If they go back in the pen, and they're playing, that's good. If they're not, we may take them again. We do something to where they're happy. Then that's gone.

Getting them out of the pen

Bud: The thing that can help people more than any other single thing, is to know that something can be done. You can figure out how to do it. If you believe it cannot be done, because you've been told it won't work, and it can't be done, then it won't work. It can't be done.

We had the feedlot full one time and I mean it was full. They didn't use the fields in those days, in fact they weren't even fenced, except for one. Richie had this one guy who wanted to bring in about 300 steers, and Richie said I hate to turn him away but we haven't got any place to put them. I said well let's just feed some out in the field. Let's just put some feed bunks out there and feed them.

I had four feedlot people tell me there ain't no way that you can do that. Those cattle were out there till they finished, they gained as well as any pen of cattle in the feedyard. Every day, I skimmed all the cattle off that weren't at the bunk, and take them to water, which was a half a mile away. Then I would go out in the middle of the day, skim all the cattle off, and take them to water. I finally got a rotation, after about four or five days. With the feed bunks about a third of the cattle could eat at a time. So I got a third at the feed bunks, a third to water, a third laying around. Soon as I got that pattern going, you had a pen, even though it was 300 acres. If you hadn't got that pattern going, then you got 300 acres, and you got a mess.

Now you can go to almost any feedlot in the country, and they'll tell you that can't be done. And if you don't do it right, they're right, you can't. You just have to do a little thinking and work at it. It's usually a simple thing. It's not that difficult sometimes to see what needs to be to completely change the whole thing so it works.

Richie: Before Bud came here, we treated our farmland as farmland. We grew silage on it. We had very little of it seeded to grass. Our cow herds were running in totally different areas. We didn't graze it.

We fenced the whole place since then. It's not just a grazing program, it's an overall handling system. Our cattle are constantly moved, and all through the winter we are taking cattle out to the fields.

That's something we would never have thought of before Bud was here. How would we have handled 1600 acres of grass in the lush part of the season?

If there are rains and warm weather early in May, we'll need a lot of cattle to graze it properly to keep it down. We'll just take them out of the feedlot. We'll take a crew, and the dogs, and teach the guys how to do it. As we chew it down, it starts to get dry, we'll turn cattle back to the feedlot. All those type of things we can do because we can handle the cattle.

We have people who can handle groups of 1400 yearlings, 600 yearlings, whatever's needed that day to graze that piece of ground.

The whole livestock handling thing is an enormous field. We've benefited a lot from what we learned from Bud. The best is yet to come. It's taken us a long time to lay the groundwork for the learning, to get through the human emotions. A side benefit is the economics--the way we approach the buying and selling. It's like a lot of things Bud teaches, it's very simple. But human beings like to make it complicated.

I've walked a calf out of a pen when I really concentrated on not concentrating. They can sense things that we have no idea. They have such an ability. That's all they've got to defend themselves, is to understand what we're going to do. And they're really good at it. The physical technique, as Bud says, for moving these animals is simple. The mental technique of controlling your mind so you're not giving off vibes to the animal that's going to upset them, that's the problem.

We had to get these two bulls out of this set of cows. They were in a clearing, it wasn't very big. They could go for a long long ways. We've got a trailer and a couple of panels. Well, where are we going to set up?

Bud said, anywhere you want.

No no no. Where should we set this up?

Wherever you want, he says. This is bugging me. Just stop right here, he says. We were in a ridiculous place, just sitting out in the middle of anywhere.

How should we put the panels?

Anyway you want, he said. Just set it up, get it done. And I used all the skill and knowledge I had as to how to set this thing up. The cows were gathered around the truck and trailer. We just walked the herd around the trailer. The two bulls, he has them kind of on the inside. And in the trailer.

Well how was that, he asked.

That was pretty good, I said. But it didn't matter.

That's the whole point. It mattered mentally. As soon as it matters, you're giving off a concern, eh? Well you've lost the animal right now.