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Dairy stockmanship: What is it and why is it important?

Mike Bolton Published on 05 June 2012
Dairy cows

For the last few years, agriculture has been discussing the terms animal welfare, animal rights, animal husbandry, animal handling and stockmanship.

They all have unique meanings and nuances to different audiences. Stockmanship is a term more common in the beef cattle industry and can be defined as the art and science of handling cattle, or any other farm animal, properly.

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For many dairy owners and employees, stockmanship skills have been honed over time and become intuitive. Others working with dairy animals have old habits or simply lack adequate training.

Sometimes even the best dairy animal handlers are not the best teachers. For example, simply watching Michael Jordan’s jump shot or Tiger Woods’ golf swing does little to teach these skills.

When the best players rely so heavily on natural ability, many times they do not know how to translate their knowledge and skill to a less-informed person. The same is true for stockmanship skills.

Thanks to the movie “The Horse Whisperer” and Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer,” it’s easy to assume these talents are truly a gift and not something that can be learned. Although this may be true at the highest level, the “art” of stockmanship is firmly based on behavioural science.

Stockmanship industry leaders
An excellent example of this science-based behaviour is evidenced by the work of Bud and Eunice Williams, stockmanship pioneers from southeastern Kansas. They have spent their lives teaching behaviour and handling skills with a variety of animals from caribou to cattle.

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Today, dairy experts Paul Rapnicki, DVM at the University of Minnesota, and Ben Bartlett, D.V.M., retired from Michigan State University Extension, and beef expert Tom Noffsinger, DVM, from southwestern Nebraska, teach the principles of stockmanship and collaborate with industry partners to create teaching materials for farmers and ranchers who care for cattle.

Benefits of proper stockmanship
Stockmanship training helps farm employees understand how cows differ from humans in their responses and behaviours. This gives insight to the animal handler and helps create an awareness of how his or her actions impact the animal they are trying to manage.

These activities produce a win-win situation for the farm, the worker and the animal. When animals are handled properly, there are many benefits:

Fewer injuries to livestock and their handlers
Calmer animals that socialize more quickly, have less aggressive behaviour and are comfortable in their environments
Increased feed consumption and, therefore, healthier and more productive animals
Less frustration from animal handlers since animals respond correctly and more quickly
Improved job satisfaction and employee retention
Lower workers’ compensation rates

Farm safety
Farm safety is a concern within the agriculture community and dairy stockmanship training may be beneficial in addressing this issue.

Keeping employees, family members and visitors safe on farms should be a top priority for every dairy farm. To maximize safety on your farm, include the fundamental principles of stockmanship as part of your farm safety training program.

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Public perceptions matter
While the entire dairy industry is committed to caring for animals, ultimately, public perceptions of dairy farmers and dairy production are equally important in today’s environment.

Every time an undercover animal rights video is released, the reputation of the dairy industry and all of livestock agriculture suffers.

As consumers become further removed from farms – now at least three generations – we can continue to expect more questions about production practices and how their food is raised.

To move from a reactive to a proactive approach, consider developing a comprehensive plan to maximize the care of animals on your farm, which includes:

Provide ongoing dairy stockmanship training to your employees.

Review your on-farm practices in all areas of animal handling and make sure they meet industry standards.

Seek the advice of your veterinarian to identify ways to further improve your animal care practices.

And finally, communicate to your family, friends, neighbours and contacts how well you take care of your animals – 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days of the year – even on holidays.

Like so many aspects of production agriculture, animal handling is a team sport. Many people and organizations can play a role in caring for dairy animals.  PD

PHOTO
Like so many aspects of production agriculture, animal handling is a team sport. Many people and organizations can play a role in caring for dairy animals. Photo by PD staff.

Mike Bolton

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