Tag: stocker

Livestock handling techniques all about reward training

  • Updated 
Ed Fryer
Ed Fryer on horseback inspecting yearling heifers along a fence in the fall at a Montana ranch with typical rangeland in background.

Livestock handling is all about animal behavior, according to Ed Fryer, who has managed Castle Mountain Ranch near White Sulpher Springs, Mont., since 1998 with his wife, Bev.

Ed and Bev are now mostly retired, and their eldest son, David, now manages the ranch.

Through the years, Ed and David became well known and well respected for low-stress livestock handling techniques.

In fact, for several years, they volunteered to demonstrate their techniques as part of the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program in Montana.

“The goal was to demonstrate simple low-stress solutions to common livestock handling tasks,” Ed Fryer said.

That portion of the program always received undivided attention and was well received by those in attendance.

“Humans, horses, cattle – it’s all animal behavior – and we’re no different than they are,” he said.

The basis of all animal training is reward training.

“It is about incentivizing a positive response somehow. It’s as simple as giving your dog a treat for doing the right thing,” he said. “With training horses, it is a system of pressure and release. You apply subtle pressure to get a response, followed by prompt release of pressure when you get even the slightest response in the desired direction. And it’s the same with cattle.”

Part of low-stress cattle handling is having a calm approach, letting the cow do the work, and setting up situations where both the handler and the cow have a high probability of succeeding.

One important concept that Fryer always brought up when they were conducting their BQA training was that there is a cumulative effect.

“If we do a poor job of handling a particular cow, the cow is going to remember what she got away with the first time,” he said.

When ranchers handle cattle consistently, cows begin to accumulate a body of learned behavior in either a positive or negative direction.

“It is up to us to set that direction in our favor. Everybody wins by doing it right,” he said.

There are certain situations that are difficult for cattle, and ranchers can take the time to evaluate the situation and make facility or other modifications to reduce difficult challenges. In these cases, it is okay to move the target.

“All we’re trying to promote (to livestock handlers) is to use our heads, realizing sometimes slowing down one facet can speed up the whole project, and to learn to set up situations where we have a very high probability of succeeding,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re in the right spot and are able to adjust our position quickly enough.”

One example Fryer gives shows the difficulty of moving heifers into a calving shed if the heifers perceive a scary situation with the layout.

“The layout was such that we had to put all the cattle through a back door with a shadowy dark spot that they really didn’t like to go into,” he said.

The crew built a simple lane on the opposite end of the shed to eliminate the need to go through that shadow.

“All we did was switch up the approach to the shed with some very simple construction,” he said. “It didn’t take us but two afternoons and a little bit of materials to switch it 180 degrees, and now one person can quite easily get a cow into the shed with almost zero stress.”

Fryer learned a lot about cattle handling as a crew member on a remote cattle ranch.

“The most proficient crew members became mentors to the younger crew members, with coaching often very blunt and direct,” he said.

That coaching, along with exposure to more modern horsemanship methods that were becoming popular in the ’70s, helped Fryer develop many skills that proved useful to him in years to come – and not only with livestock.

Fryer gives two examples of his mentors’ “blunt direction” that helped set the course for future professional development.

The first occurred while Fryer was a teen-ager on a summer branding crew for a “tough” cowboy outfit.

Yearlings were “mixed up” in the pasture, so the cowboys held the cattle up in a corner so the boss could sort them into their respective groups.

“I was assigned as a herd holder to assist in keeping the cattle together. My horse was barely trained, just like everybody else’s horse. I got bucked off a couple of times and I started complaining to the boss about the horse,” he said. “The boss finally told me to ‘shut up and make sure I was doing my job to the best of my ability, and the horse part would take care of itself.’ It worked, and I never forgot about it.”

Another example occurred while Fryer was in his early 20s.

Fryer and another young cowboy named George were sent out from a cow camp to search for calves, along with Sam, an older cowboy approaching 60-years-old.

It was winter, bitter cold, with a foot of snow on the ground.

“We had to ride several miles into rough country and look for some calves, weaned calves that a hunter had reported seeing,” he recalled.

The cowboys found the calves and started back to camp.

“We came to this little creek about 18 inches wide, two feet deep, drifted over with snow, and the calves didn’t want to cross it,” he said.

While the creek was invisible to the eye, both the calves and the horses knew it was there.

“You can hear the water gurgling down there and it was one of those oxbow-type creeks, so we had them trapped in one of the oxbows. These calves would not cross,” he said.

Fryer and George decided they needed to make a track for the calves to follow.

“We rode our horses back and forth across (the creek) two or three times, while Sam guarded the narrow entrance and watched,” he said. “The calves were not trying to get away, so we younger fellows were thinking that we had better just rope them and drag them across. But there were too many calves and we knew we couldn’t rope them all.”

Meanwhile, Sam said to the young cowboys, “You want to smoke?”

Since we had spent some years on the same crew, he knew we didn’t smoke.

“Sam looked at us in a direct and unmistakable way and said, ‘You guys would be a hell of a lot better hands if you at least had to stop and smoke once in a while,’” he said.

Meanwhile, the sun was sinking, and Fryer and George were getting nervous.

“George and I were tightening our cinches getting ready to rope, and while all this is going on, the calves are standing there watching us.” he said. “We had no choice but to sit on our horses and talk while Sam was smoking. Finally, those calves must have decided they were going to have to go somewhere, because all of a sudden, they just turned around and hopped across the creek and headed out towards where we wanted them to go all along.”

That taught Fryer a lot about low-stress cattle handling.

“We did not need to rope and drag them across. We just presented the option in a different way to get them to do what we wanted them to do,” he said. “Eventually, those calves decided, all on their own, that our horse tracks didn’t look so bad. They just followed our horses’ tracks, hopped across the little creek and away they went.”

That stuck in Fryer’s mind and he began to build on his cowboy skills.

Fryer has spent a lifetime on ranches in Montana and Wyoming, and he believes low-stress cattle handling is a way of handling cattle that leads to success for both cattle and hands.

Animal Unit Months

Here’s more math for figuring out how to feed our livestock while making a good living on leased pasture. Even if math isn’t your strong suit, we take it one step at a time so that it’s as easy as it can be.

AUM Breakdown

Animal Unit Months

Figuring pasture use rates by Animal Unit (AUM) is more common in the western United States where it is the basis for public lands leased to ranchers for their stock. The nice thing about this method is that it makes it easy to plug numbers into a formula to give you a good idea of how many animals you can feed for how long. The formula factors in pasture quality, and the market price of hay so that you can come up with something fair to both parties.

An Animal Unit Month (AUM) is the amount of forage required to sustain a 1,000 pound cow with her calf at her side for 30 days. That works out to about 26.1 pounds per day. Forage requirements for all the other classes of livestock are shown in relationship to that 1,000 pound cow and her calf.

Here’s the formula:

Number of Animal Units x Average Hay Price Out of the Field Per Ton x Pasture Quality Factor = Rate Per Head Per Month

Pasture Quality Factor(Note: This formula works well for irrigated pasture, but may over-estimate non-irrigated, arid range rental rates where there is less forage and very little infrastructure.)

Here’s an example of what the formula looks like using a 1200-pound cow with her calf, during a time when hay is going for $10o per ton, and you’re hoping to rent an excellent grass and legume pasture:

1.20 AU x $100/ton x .20 Quality Factor = $24/AUM

From here the landowner and prospective lease can negotiate price based on expectations for management of the pasture, past experience, water and fence infrastructure and other requirements.

Don’t like that formula?  Here’s another option:

Hay Value Per Ton / 8.5 Rule of Thumb Forage Equivalent x Animal Unit = Rate Per Animal Unit Per Month

Using the same cow-calf pair and hay price, here’s that formula in action:

($100 per ton/8.5) x 1.2 = $14.12 per AUM

This is also just a starting point and depending on the result may point out whether you’ve over- or under-estimated the value of your hay.

Sharing Profit and Risk

If you intend to graze Stocker Cattle, establishing a rental rate based on pounds gained means that the landowner and the lease share the profit if there is one, and the risk if gain isn’t as great as expected. If you’re considering this method, you’ll have to have base values for the cost of gain, the expected gain, how long the animals will graze, and the per animal costs for caring for them through the grazing season.

All of the formulas I found for this method start with a Pasture Charge per Head per Month, also called a Seasonal Cost.  None of them told me where they got that number, but they all started with $10.  So starting with that as my full disclosure, we’ll go through this figuring process.

Pasture Charge Per Head Per Month x Number of Months = Seasonal Cost

$10 x 6 months = $60 per head

We use this as our base and then we divide by the pounds of gain we expect. This will change depending on the kinds of animals you’re running, grazing management, health and parasite load of the livestock and forage quality. This is where the risk sharing comes in. Let’s say that we think our stock will gain 200 pounds each while they’re on pasture.  Now our formula looks like this:

($10 x 6) / 200 pounds = 30¢ per pound of gain.

Thirty cents per pound is our break-even price and if the animals all gain 200 pounds each, that’s what the landowner gets. If the stock gain more, say 240 pounds, here’s what the landowner gets per animal:

240 x .30 = $72 per head

But if the animals only gain 175 lbs each, the landowner gets less money per animal:

175 x .30 = $52.5 per head

2019 Nebraska Cow-Calf Pair and Stocker Rental Rates

Recent findings published from the Nebraska Farm Real Estate Market Highlights 2018-2019 indicate changes in cow-calf and stocker monthly rental rates trended slightly lower when compared to 2018 (Table 1). Nebraska monthly grazing rates represent a typical fee for one month of grazing during the summer. Many leases run for a five-month grazing season subject to annual weather conditions.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Agricultural Economics annually surveys Nebraska land professionals including appraisers, farm and ranch managers, and agricultural bankers. Results from the survey are divided by rental rate class and summarized by the eight Agricultural Statistics Districts of Nebraska (Figure 1).

Reported rates for cow-calf pair and stocker from the Nebraska Farm Real Estate Market Highlights include by district the average, high third quality, and low third quality. The range in these averages reflect the differences in the quality of the grazing land. Features influencing the quality of the grazing land might include the mix of the forages present during the growing season, livestock water sources, fencing upkeep, and general market competitiveness for the area.

To determine a cow-calf pair rental rate for a five-month period, the monthly rate for a district would be multiplied by five to calculate the seasonal rate. For example, the Central District average cow-calf pair monthly rental rate of $50.70 multiplied by five would be $253.50 per cow-calf pair for the 2019 grazing season.  This rate would vary depending upon the district of the state and provisions considered as part of the lease.

Negotiations on contractual terms for the grazing season include considerations on the landlord and tenant’s willingness to provide fencing maintenance, weed or brush control, and monitoring or providing water. Depending upon the willingness of either party to maintain, control, or provide these resources as part of the lease, the final rental rate may vary accordingly as panel members noted.

In addition, panel members also reported on the need for reviewing leases to account for different kinds of weather-related disasters such as flooding or drought. Reviewing these provisions by the appropriate agency or organization providing disaster assistance ensures compliance on grazing land in the case of an adverse weather event.

Survey results shown and discussed in this report are findings from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln 2019 Nebraska Farm Real Estate Market Survey. Complete results from the survey may be found at the Nebraska Farm Real Estate website: http://agecon.unl.edu/realestate.

Please address questions regarding preliminary estimates from the 2018-2019 Nebraska Farm Real Estate Survey to Jim Jansen at (402) 261-7572 or jjansen4@unl.edu.

Jim Jansen, (402) 261-7572
Agricultural Economist
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
jjansen4@unl.edu

Jeff Stokes, (402) 472-1742
Professor, Agricultural Banking and Finance
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
jeffrey.stokes@unl.edu

 

Interviews with the authors of BeefWatch newsletter articles become available throughout the month of publication and are accessible at https://go.unl.edu/podcast.