Pop quiz time. In 25 words or less, define stockmanship on your dairy. And no, it’s not how well you’ve stocked the shelves of your supply room.

Time is up. Does your answer match the following? If it doesn’t, then it’s time to redefine stockmanship on your dairy.

Stockmanship is the interaction of people and animals, as well as the implementation of low-stress handling techniques to improve the outcome for both people and animals, says Paul Rapnicki, University of Minnesota veterinarian. “It’s really about appropriate cow handling,” he says.

And it’s a concept, he contends, in which every dairy — regardless of size — should receive training. Here’s why.

Production implications

If you think training your people to use good stockmanship isn’t worth the effort or time investment, think again. Human-animal interactions may markedly affect the productivity of farm animals, says Paul Hemsworth, director of the Animal Welfare Science Centre at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

His research published in the January 2002 Journal of Animal Science found that when dairy personnel received animal-handling training and adopted the improved techniques, cows produced as much as 5 percent more milk, as well as improved in milk fat and protein output. This is because they were less afraid and reacted more calmly to interactions with humans.

“Consistent with the improvement in stockperson behavior, there was evidence that cows at the farms where interventions took place showed a shorter flight distance to humans, indicating a lower level of fear of humans in these cows,” he notes.

Behavior modification

Better stockmanship also pays off in better animal welfare, a critical hot-button industry topic.

There is a lack of recognition as to how important stockmanship is to animal well-being, says Naomi Botheras, Ohio State University extension animal-welfare specialist. “We talk about housing and other important components, but we often forget, or don’t think about, human interaction and its implications. Handling skills and training are absolutely crucial.”

She says that even common behaviors of people — like shouting, moving quickly and rapidly changing direction — can make animals more fearful. “Cows are much more sensitive, especially to sound, than many people realize,” Botheras explains. Add in the fact that many dairy personnel have little or no animal-handling experience prior to working on a dairy, and it’s no wonder that stockmanship skills are wanting on many operations.

That’s not to say that all dairies lack animal-handling skills. There’s always variation from farm to farm, says Botheras. “Many farms do an excellent job, but it depends on the attitude of management and their people toward the cows.” Most farms could benefit from a refresher in animal-handling principles.

However, Botheras and Rapnicki note, proper animal handling training is not always a priority. In fact, Botheras suggests that the training of people as professional managers of animals has largely been ignored. Therefore, it’s easy to slip into bad habits or never learn good ones.

This is not a new challenge. People are more likely to purchase new equipment than use easy-to-learn low-stress techniques for moving cattle, Temple Grandin, animal science professor at Colorado State University noted in her remarks to the 35th International Congress of the International Society of Applied Ethology back in 2001. “Even when the financial benefits are clear, some people find it difficult to believe that a purely behavioral management method will really work,” she says. “People want a ‘thing’ rather than learning better management practices.”

Predicting a safe response

You can do better. The cow will always be consistent in her response to interaction; it’s people that misinterpret, or just plain don’t get why she does what she does. It is this misunderstanding that can lead to injuries, danger and frustration.

“Cattle have very little patience if we attempt to communicate with them improperly,” says Rapnicki. By mitigating this problem with improved stockmanship, cows become much more receptive to worker actions. Moving cows goes from being a problem to a routine management action. 

“If we can improve our efficiency of cattle movement, it makes life a lot easier on the dairy,” adds Botheras. It also adds to worker safety, which improves their work environment.

Job satisfaction

This success builds on itself.

While human attitudes and behavior’s impact toward animal productivity have been quantified, improved stockmanship skills show up in other ways. Improved job satisfaction, work ethic and motivation to learn are often affected, too.

For example, when a worker’s attitudes and actions toward cattle are negative, chances are that person won’t be committed to the principles of animal welfare or the production issues associated with it. He or she probably won’t pay attention to subtle cow health cues, sore feet, estrus expression or other key factors that impact animal management on your dairy. 

A poor overall attitude toward cattle often results in job dissatisfaction, argues Botheras, which can lead to significant employee turnover challenges and expenses.

But when those employee attitudes improve with the help of training and education, the results can be dramatic. People will do a better job, they will be happier and can more easily identify and deal with animal-care issues.

It’s like giving your dairy a raise, with little or no investment, that benefits your cows, your employees and your bottom line, concludes Botheras. “There’s no need to go out and buy new equipment. We need good people to make our systems on modern dairy farms work, and they need the skills and tools to do so.”