Low Stress Bison Handling

By Mark Kossler, Turner Enterprises

The last thirty-five years have seen the development and marketing of “resistance free” training in horses as a “new way” of training horses and riding them that makes them soft, safe, reliable, and extremely responsive to the rider’s direction and control.  During the same time period, “low stress” livestock handling has been taught and promoted by many, though most would attribute its recent advent and promotion to Bud and Eunice Williams.

Both of these disciplines seem to promote training horses or livestock to “handle” better, and both use similarly aligned principles to do so.  But an in-depth study of either of these might reveal that the training is of the people, not the animals.  To take this a step further, one might realize that handling problems with livestock may have more to do with how people approach and try to control them than with the livestock themselves.  Could it be that “we” are the root problem with poor handling and performing livestock?

Do these “low stress” principles work with bison? 

Much has been written and taught about bison being “semi-free ranging wild ungulents” with a built in predilection that renders normal livestock handling techniques, fences, corrals and equipment insufficient to handle and control these animals. 

This perception has lead many to build physically large and imposing fences as the “standard” bison fence In fact, some of the  “Jurassic Park” corrals developed for working bison could easily be used for working elephants. Yet many producers  use minimal fencing (two wires electric) for pasture separations with little or no problems, and some use minimal corrals made out of wood, rubber belting, wildlife screening, or big straw bales to routinely work their animals. 

Why the difference between producer facilities?  They are running the same animals; could it be the difference is in the people, their attitude toward the animals and the philosophy and techniques they use to manage and control them?

Stress is defined as  mental, emotional or physical strain caused by anxiety or overwork; to cause somebody or something to experience mental, emotional or physical stress.  Isn’t this what we are really talking about?  Can some producers minimize the stress their animals experience while others may be blind to it and by design of their production system or handling methods exert huge amounts of stress on their animals causing all sorts of problems?  Stress can be brought about in how we handle or move our bison; how we manage them on range; how we confine and feed them; as well as how they are worked in the corral.

“Low Stress” livestock handling should create an environment, in facilities and handling methods that keep animals mentally calm, content, and unafraid.  Bud Williams would say that the essence of low stress livestock handling is handling the animals in a way that suits them and keeps them “mentally” intact or keeps them from becoming “mentally fractured” which results in wild, erratic and often aggressive behavior.  It is developing an environment on our ranches that responds to what the animals show us they need.  As Bud will often say in his clinics, “our animals are continually communicating to us by what they do or don’t do, but are we listening”?

In essence, do we manage and handle our animals in such a way that we minimize the stress they experience or do we manage and handle our animals in ways that increases their stress?  Steve Cote says in his book, “Stockmanship, A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management,” “Stress occurs when we (people) place demands on animals that they can’t calmly meet or respond to naturally, and failure to meet our demands has undesirable consequences.”  In many instances, these consequences are poor handling, poor animal performance, aggressive behavior, death loss, injuries, increased disease and health problems, increased handler stress, and economic loss. 

It is impossible in the space provided to thoroughly talk about every nuance of “low stress livestock handling” as it pertains to bison, however this overview will address many of the main points operators are faced with in owning and managing bison and how “low stress” methods can indeed help them better manage their animals.

Handling Bison – The “Low Stress” Basics

Bison  and other livestock will respond to pressure we put on them as we place ourselves into their comfort or flight zone. This zone is the area around them that causes them to take notice we are there, and then, if the pressure isn’t removed, to move away from us. 

This gentle “dance” of us applying pressure, the animal moving away from the pressure and us releasing the pressure is the main method of getting our animals to move for us in a “low stress” manner.  What makes it low stress?  The fact that we move into an animal’s flight zone giving it pressure and when it moves away from us, we release the pressure by either not moving with them in the same direction (by stopping) or we move in a different direction.  This sets up a positive cause and effect relationship – that is we get into their flight zone putting pressure on them, and they, by moving away from us get released from the pressure. 

If we are diligent and consistent in using this “give pressure – get release” relationship effectively gives control of the release of the pressure to the animal.  They quickly learn the responses that  gives them release from the pressure.  Once our animals establish this relationship,  they can effectively take huge amounts of pressure without getting stressed or emotionally fractured.  Why?  Because we build a relationship with them that lets them know they are in control of releasing it and over time a level of trust and respect exists between animal and handler.        

What causes “high stress” in our animals?  Putting pressure on them and never releasing it, or worse, no matter what they (the bison) do, continually increasing the pressure.  This is how to get bison to become aggressive to their handlers.  Unfortunately, most of us were reared in the mode of “high stress” livestock management where things are generally done fast and loud!  If movements with our livestock look like a controlled stampede rather than a calm, slow, orderly move then we are operating on the “high stress” side of livestock management. 

Following are some foundational principles we will have to work on to develop our ranches into “low stress” operations.

  1. Realize that it is our fault, not theirs, if our livestock live in a high stress environment. We will need to change how we operate to affect a better outcome for them. Our attitudes towards our animals and philosophies of animal management will have to change, as they are just operating the best they can in the environment we provide for them.    
  2. Consistently use signals that livestock can respond to naturally so they can understand our meaning or what we want them to do.  Get consistent in how we move our bison in the pasture, from pasture to pasture or in the corral.  Realize that if they become unsettled or emotionally fractured, it is something we did that caused it.  Analyze the responses (feedback) we get from our stock, as this is how they are communicating to us.  If we are not getting the desired feedback, then we are the problem and will need to change what we are doing. 
  3. Apply only the amount of pressure needed to get the desired response, not an ounce more!
  4. Stop “forcing” our bison to do what we want.  Replace force with consistent sound handling principles that allow them to learn what we want and gives them opportunity to do it willingly.
  5. Stop doing things that cause immediate “high stress” in our bison such as yelling; moving fast and erratically; not giving them time to think, analyze and respond; putting continued unrelenting pressure on them with no release.
  6. Stop having a definite schedule when working with our bison.  We must realize that our “schedule” puts pressure on us that often times is transferred to our bison, which causes its own problems.  In working with animals, not every day is the same and how we approach it often times affects the outcome.  If we are on edge and in a hurry, the animals will pick up on this and react accordingly.
  7. Start getting on the “other side of the horns.”  Spend some time thinking about what we do with our bison and how it may look or feel from their perspective.  If we can get inside them and see what we do through their eyes, it well may change how we do things. 
  8. If one approach does not work, even if it did yesterday, try another. Conditions are constantly changing and we must account for that with our method and approach.  Be flexible in what we do and how we do it.

This list is talking about a change in our philosophy and attitude.  Unless we work at changing how we operate, nothing significant will change in our operations and how we manage our animals.  It is not impossible to bring about a change in how we operate on our own but it is normally done with some reading, research, and lessons from those who know how to do it.  If we have not had any training in low stress livestock handling, we will not know many of the things we are doing that create stress in our livestock. The end of this document will give you some references for places to learn more.    

Pasture Management

The pasture environment would include the size and shape of the pastures, forage quantities and qualities available, watering sources, spatial requirements for individuals and or family groups as well as a myriad of other considerations.  Is there a method or plan in place that monitors both forage condition and animal performance?  Does this method or plan focus on creating optimal animal performance and contentment as well as efficient use of the pasture or range, minimizing areas of forage overuse or under use?

Bison have a very intact social structure that has definite spacing requirements between individuals and family groups.  This spacing requirement may be different for different sexes and ages of animals throughout different times of the year.  Herds that generate their own replacements from offspring will develop family groups between related individuals.  Many think that these family groups interact with one another at times but most often require spacing between the groups while on pasture. 

Social stress will become a factor if pasture size is too small to give adequate spatial requirements for individuals or family groups for large herds. This causes discontent and disharmony within the herd, causing animals to breach fences and become difficult to handle.  Low forage quantity, quality, or lack of water sources can compound the situation, causing animals to be discontent while suffering poor performance. 

Adequate spatial requirements are easily achieved if pasture size is very large for the herd size, and animal performance may not suffer . But land use may not be efficient as many areas of the pasture may become over used or under used, both of which are detrimental to range condition.  Do we have the ability to move animals onto portions of underutilized range, have them be content, getting them to stay and utilize it, even returning there after going to water?  A high level of stockman-ship could be used to solve this problem in many instances, without the expense and cost of further fencing in large pastures.

When bison are first put onto a new ranch or perhaps moved into a new pasture, the manner in which they are introduced to their new environment can determine how they will settle in.  How were they handled prior to arrival or the move to the new pasture, were they worked and shipped gently, keeping them mentally “together” or were they mishandled and mentally fractured?  Are they herd mates or of the same family group with an intact social order or of disassociated origin so that the “group” has no intact social structure?  Are they of mixed ages giving some mature leadership to the group or are they of similar young age (weaned calves or yearlings), lacking natural group leadership?  Are the animals coming from an environment with similar climate, water and forages or is everything quite different and new?   

Are we weaning our calves at six months of age and running them separate from the herd?  Do we have to feed or supplement them heavily to keep them gaining in spite of them being on good pasture?  If we do, it may have more to do with social dynamics and group leadership than nutrition.  It has been my experience that 6 month old bison are not ready to be on their own and may be dysfunctional grazers, not working a pasture as needed to get the best nutrition possible. Worse yet if they are emotionally unsettled, they will not get sufficient dry matter intake to sustain or have  a positive weight gain.  This social and environmental stress we place on our calves may require significant feed or supplement inputs to overcome.  Is there a way around this?

Many producers experiencing problems with juvenile animals that have been separated from the herd have tried the following:

  • Not weaning;
  • weaning calves for two or three weeks and them putting the calves back with the herd so mom can pick up where she left off; or
  • keeping some older mentor animals with weaned calves to provide social structure and leadership for the group.  Often times the mentor animals may be dry aged cows, or aged bulls. 

Though not weaning at all is controversial, some producers that graze year round claim that the cows dry up in the late fall when their metabolism becomes catabolic which takes the nursing stress off of the cows, yet mom is able to mentor their calves to yearling age with little or no detrimental effects to her. This also lowers supplemental costs for calves.      

Introducing bison into unfamiliar environments can be troublesome and often contributes to the conclusion that bison are difficult to hold and contain.  The real problem is that the bison were thrown into a new environment with little or no consideration made for all the factors listed above. This sudden introduction into an unfamiliar environment makes them difficult to contain as they may be emotionally unsettled, lack social leadership, lack knowledge of new forages, feed sources and basic knowledge of where to go and what to do.  A good analogy would be if we were kidnapped in the evening, roughed up, shoved onto a plane and shipped overnight to Shanghais then dropped off on the south side of town. Would we experience any stress figuring out where we were and what we would need to do to find food water and shelter?     

Confined Feeding and Diet

Some management and marketing systems require feeding of concentrates to your animals prior to slaughter.  Systems used by producers range from supplementing concentrates while on high quality pasture or in loose confinement on harvested forages to putting animals into commercial cattle feed yards.  These systems are being utilized each year by producers with varying degrees of success, but how might our bison see each system?  Is the stress the bison experience in each the same?  The following table lists some basic parameters for a typical low input on ranch feeding system and a commercial feed yard.

The typical “on ranch” feeding system for exposing bison to concentrates will normally have bison in smaller groups, in larger pens with more square footage per animal while on a menu ration of forages and concentrates where animals have some selection in their diet. 

The larger pen per group size addresses the social need for more spacing, particularly for young bulls that are just reaching sexual maturity.  The smaller group size helps the “pecking order” of the group so that the “tail end” group is smaller.  The menu ration gives animals some choice in what they eat and the amounts of concentrate consumed.  The animals will address rumen acidosis by selecting more forages and less concentrate.  This in effect lets individuals customize their ration to their nutritional tolerances and needs.  Disease exposure is generally limited as the bison are in a closed herd system with limited exposure to diseases from off ranch sources.

The typical “commercial feed yard” will have bison in larger groups in small pens, giving much less room for each animal due to pen and bunk space costs per animal.  Group sizes tend to be much larger, leaving a large “bottom” end in the pen that will not do well in the tight social environment until some of the top end is finished and taken out of the group.  Nearly all rations fed are total mixed rations that have all components processed and mixed together, leaving no choice for individuals to customize the ration for their individual nutritional compatibilities and no way to buffer an onset of acidosis by limiting concentrate intake and increasing fiber intake.  Disease exposure is high due to the off ranch environment and exposure to cattle from numerous sources.

Though the “commercial feed yard” system has become the standard in the cattle industry over the last 60 years, we need to remember that we have selected cattle to fit this system by selecting breeding stock (typically bulls) that did well in this environment (tight confinement) and on this type of ration (high concentrate total mixed ration). 

Bison on the other hand have not been selected for this environment, have a dominant social order that demands more space per animal to keep social stress minimized, have not been “bred” to do well on the same high concentrate rations as cattle and are easily challenged in a high disease environment of concentrated ruminants.  The stress bison experience in the commercial feed yard environment is less than ideal and often times will yield much higher death loss and higher costs of gain than on ranch feeding. 

Working Bison in the Corral          

Working bison through the corral is a time that challenges our abilities as stockmen, as we are in close proximity with the animals. And if our corrals are substantial, it gives them little choice but to submit to what we may do to them.  It is very easy to overpressure them as they do not have the ability to just leave or move away from us to release pressure.  If bison become over pressured they will become aggressive often times causing harm to themselves, their pen mates, the facilities, and their handlers.

Much talk has been given to the corral that is “perfect” for working bison.  I have seen and worked in corrals of different design and configuration and feel that the perfect corral has not been built. Some, however, work better than others.  Bud Williams would tell you the same thing and then say that it is our responsibility as animal handlers to make whatever corral we have work for the animals by accommodating whatever they need to feel comfortable in going through the corral.  Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University would say that corral design matters a lot and that we need to build or change our corrals so that they work well for the animals and the average handler.  I agree with both of them. 

I have worked in corrals that eventually were modified so that it was easier to get animals to go through them.  Do you have an area that does not work well in your corral?  Modify the existing corral with big straw bales and see if it fixes the main issues.  If it does, then spend the time and money to make a permanent change.  If you are really struggling to figure out how to get your bison to come through the corral in a calm orderly manner, invite another producer to come and visit, as the needed change may be in how the handlers are working the bison.  If you are building a corral from scratch, spend some time and a little money traveling to visit other producer corrals when they are working bison.  This time and research up front can be invaluable investment.   

Working bison in the corral really starts on the outside.  Have we been successfully moving them in our pastures in a low stress method?  Have we established a rapport with them by giving pressure and letting them release it?  Are we so consistent in how we do this that we have built a trust relationship with them?  Do we routinely move our bison into or through the corral when we do not need to work them, so they do not have a negative experience every time they get there?  Are our corrals set up as part of the pasture environment, so that one or more pastures use the water sources in the corral for watering points, allowing animals to come into the corral on their own when we aren’t there?

Have we devised a system or method of getting them into the corral without “stampeding” them there?  Do we always bring them into the corral the same way or do we use a different way or method every time?  Is the approach into our corrals on flat ground or do the animals have to climb up or go down?  Animals feeling threatened have a natural propensity to go up. If we need to move them down into the corrals, it is unnatural to them and may not work as well. 

If we are using the stampede method (multiple people, horses, helicopters, atv’s and vehicles all loudly moving at a high rate of speed), we have just set the stage for them to work very difficult for us as they will be mentally unsettled and on edge, being overly sensitive to any pressure that is applied to them. We can then expect the whole process to be arduous for everyone involved. If we have been successful in getting them into the corral without excessively pressuring them, then we have set the stage for them to work for us in a reasonable manner that helps everyone.

If our herds are large for the relative size of our corrals, do not try to bring the whole herd into the corral at once.  Remember that bison get pressure from us and from their herd mates, as they have a social need for space between each other.  The areas we put our bison into get progressively smaller from the time we bring them from a pasture to the corral and eventually into the squeeze chute, a very confined space with room for one animal.  We need to progressively take smaller groups as they get closer to the squeeze chute or they will become over pressured and mentally fractured from pressure they get from each other and us.

The number of people used in the corral working often times is larger than optimum.  Why?  High stress livestock workings typically take a lot of people because it is a hard task which typically forces animals to do what we want them to.  We tend to take this standard and apply it to a low stress environment where one experienced person can get a lot done with the animals by correctly applying and releasing pressure.  The problem is when we add more people to the equation, we usually add inexperienced folks that are not trained or supervised in low stress methods.  It only takes one high stress person working in a low stress environment to wreck havoc on the process for everyone.  Are we careful whom we invite to help us work our bison?  Are they trained or supervised to keep them from over pressuring or slipping back into high stress practices?

I have found that up to several thousand head of bison, can be effectively worked with a crew of six or less people in the corral if the corral is adequate for the task and the handlers are experienced and trained in low stress methods.  Typically this crew would consist of 1 person in back (PIB) bringing animals into the lead up behind the chute, 1 person behind the chute (PBC) working the lead up and putting animals into the chute and a crew of three or four at the chute processing animals, keeping records and possibly separating animals into different groups as they leave the chute.

The most important position in this crew is the PIB as he is typically on foot in the back pens with the animals bringing them into the lead up.  If he is consistent in using low-pressure techniques, animals will typically move into the lead up behind the squeeze chute with a minimal amount of stress, and will then move into the squeeze chute with a minimal amount of pressure.  If the PIB mishandles animals coming into the lead up by over pressuring them to the point of them being mentally fractured, they will be difficult to move into the chute, require the use of hot shots and other less than desirable methods.

Lead ups to the squeeze chute that are patterned after most modern cattle facilities are often much longer than necessary as these are often stacked with cattle for “group” vaccinations. The problem with an excessively long lead up is that we can talk ourselves into filling it with bison. This is a huge mistake. 

Bison in the lead up are extremely vulnerable and are under pressure by just being in this environment.  The longer they are in the lead up, the worse this gets for them, as they feel vulnerable to the animals in front of them and behind them, as well as to people that may be hovering over them if there is a raised catwalk beside the lead up.  They are vulnerable because they have no way of releasing or escaping from pressure from handlers or herd mates. 

The amount of time an animal is in the lead up is the “soak time.”  The longer the soak time for each animal, the more pressured they will feel until they may become emotionally fractured and non-responsive to correctly applied pressure.  If we stack an excessively long lead up with more than three or four animals, the ones in back will have an excessive “soak time.”  This will lead again to the use of hot shots and other less than desirable methods being used to move them into the squeeze chute.

The PBC is in a position to overpressure animals in the lead up.  He or she can do this by doing too much.  If the animals come into the lead up and stand reasonably quiet, the best thing the PBC  can do is to stay quiet and away from them (out of sight) until it is time to  move one of them into the chute. 

The worse thing the PBC can do is to try and separate them with dividers if the lead up is equipped with them and stand over the animals in their view, making noise, visiting with everyone within ear shot, drinking coffee and spilling donut crumbs on them! I say this half joking but will this is exactly what happens in many situations.  When animals are in the lead up they feel extremely vulnerable and just seeing a handler above them in their view puts additional pressure on them.  If we have a raised cat walk beside the lead up, is it wide enough so that the PBC can stand away from the lead up out of sight and sound of the bison in the lead up?

When the animal in the chute is released and the chute is reset for another animal and the back door of the chute opens, is the next animal in the lead up given a little time to assess this change?  Bison do not process multiple inputs well.  If the chute gate clangs open, this is a change in the environment for the next animal in the lead up.  They need just a little bit of time to assess this change.  The worse thing the PBC can do is immediately get into view and put physical pressure on this animal at the same time the gate opens. The animal will lock up as simultaneous things happening all at once. 

Instead, the PBC should count slowly – “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three” – before getting into its view or applying any pressure on the animal. Then, when the pressure will convince the animal to move ahead into the chute.              

The following is a “Low Stress Corral Working Checklist” that we can apply to our operations.

  1. Multiple ways to moving stock into the corrals?  Do we change methods periodically?
  2. Bison have been in the corrals when we do not need to work them and they did not have a negative experience while there?
  3. We have progressively smaller pastures or holding pens outside of our corrals to begin herd divisions on larger herds?
  4. Divide and conquer – we progressively divide the herd into smaller groups while moving them closer to the squeeze chute, constantly monitoring stress they put on each other in the space they are provided and making adjustments as necessary to minimize social stress?
  5. Number or people needed to work the bison herd is minimized, with low stress training being done before and during the operation?   Non-experienced participants are minimized or adequately supervised to keep them from over pressuring the bison?
  6. Do you need more than five or six people if your corrals are adequate?
  7. Is the PIB and PBC consistently using pressure and release techniques?  Is a knowledgeable person monitoring how things are working and making corrections as needed to keep animals calm and coming through the facility?   
  8. Is the most experienced stockman working as the PIB?  Is he being used to train others in low stress methods while working in this position? Is he consistent at bringing one to three or four animals at a time into the lead up, not overloading it?
  9. Is the second most experienced stockman working as the PBC?  Is the catwalk beside the lead up wide enough so that he can get out of the view of the animals in the lead up?
  10. Does the PBC give the “three” count before putting pressure on animals to move into the chute?  When animals give to the pressure applied, does he freeze the pressure (or motion) being applied if he gets the motion he wants from the animal?
  11. Does the chute crew stay as quiet as possible?  Do they stay out of site and quiet until an animal is in the chute and head catch?  Is the operator continually monitoring the condition of the animal in the chute the whole time it is there, monitoring the breathing, making adjustments to the head catch and body squeeze as needed?  Is actual chute time efficient and minimized, limiting “soak time”?  Is the animal released by opening the head catch first then releasing the body squeeze? Does the chute crew need to use a hot shot often or seldom?
  12. What is your average “soak time” from the time an animal comes into the lead up until it leaves the chute?
  13. Is there an adequate area animals are released into that lets them cool down and recover from the stress they have been through?  Is there adequate water, food, and space?  Is the release from the corral a soft release or a modified stampede? 
  14. Just how often did you have to use a hot shot in the process of working your bison?  The low stress standard is to never need to use one!
  15. Are we concerned about how many animals we worked in one day or how well we worked the animals?  Are we working on our time schedule to the point of creating stress on our animals to get done on time? 

So how are we doing in working our animals in the corral?  As the saying goes, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”!  Following is a Bison Welfare Audit developed by Brian Ward and Temple Grandin that can be used to measure several areas of working bison in the corral.  Use it, as it will highlight areas of concern that are causing stress in working your bison!     

So how are you feeling about all of this?  Are you stressed out?  If you are, take some time to come up with a plan – to lower your stress and the stress you may put on your bison!  It can have great benefit for all.  Here are some places to get help and education on Low Stress Handling.               

Bud Williams Stockmanship at www.stockmanship.com is a good place to start as well as Temple Grandin at www.grandin.com.  The book “Stockmanship – A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management” by Steve Cote gives a great layman’s explanation of low stress livestock handling philosophies and methods.  It is available from the Butte Soil and Water Conservation District in Arco, Idaho.  Also contact the National Bison Association for references and recommendations for members who are using Low Stress Livestock methods on their ranches.