Cattle handling teaches leadership… research paper

Please contact me if you would like the full powerpoint presentation created with this research paper.


Cattle Handling Teaches Organization Management Skills

by Cryshtal Avera


This essay examined the management skills people can gain through working with cattle.  Organizations often struggle to find and train managers who are effective leaders.  This essay highlighted management styles used by different cattle handlers who are known known as stockman.  Specifically, this work compared a more aggressive cattle management style to a style based on psychology and outcomes of both.  Upon completion of comparison of this research, clarity that efficient, team oriented, often more timely results with long term team success can be accomplished with a calm, psychology based approach.  Managers and business leaders should find opportunities to spend time working with cattle in an educational and safe environment, as this effort can result in powerful lessons.  Understanding and abilities could be obtained much quicker than in a standard workshop or training environment due to the personal self reflection necessary to be successful with cattle along with physical, time sensitive results that must be faced as presented by the herd.

Cattle Handling Teaches Organization Management Skills

Management skills are sought after and there are many forms of training available for progress in management and leadership.  This essay focuses on the skills and understanding that working with cattle can provide to managers.  Not only does cattle handling help people learn effective management skills, but it does so in much less time than training that offers a standard class room setting style of education, because of the experiential aspect and time sensitive reality that must be heeded when accomplishing results with a herd of cattle.  This essay highlights how cattle handling teaches not only management skills, but leadership skills and team work, and presents specific processes that offer this valuable education.

Approaches to Handling Cattle

There are two general styles in which most stockmen work their cattle; fast and furious or psychology based.  The latter is sometimes described as no stress cattle work.

The style described above as fast and furious includes behaviors such as chasing the cattle, lots of yelling, erratic behavior, fast movement, and often includes a similar treatment style of the cowhand’s horse.  This type of approach with cattle results in the animals being stressed, often scattering in different directions and the worst case scenario is animals running through fences or running blindly into places where they’ll be harmed or even killed.  The long term effect of this style of cattle handling is a herd that is fearful, does not trust handlers, and can cause the work of moving, sorting, and caring for them to take much longer than necessary and be frustrating to handlers (Grandin, 2002).

The second style described, psychology based or no stress cattle work, entails behaviors such as being mindful of surroundings, gates being purposefully placed open or closed to set up the herd for success, and noticing any sick cows and considering how that might affect the herd when trying to move them.  Another opportunity to set up the herd and job for success is noticing any newly born calves and considering that mama cows will not leave their babies and that newborns can only travel so far in their first days of life.  The above considerations and others pertaining to cattle behavior and psychology of the herd help the handlers create a strategy that will likely result in a successful outcome and provide a non stressful experience to the herd.  This style of handling not only makes the job easier, it sets up the herd to trust their handlers and teaches them through patterns, which can make the long term job easy for handlers as well as relaxing for the herd (“Animal Behaviour, Resources for applied ethology: Cattle”, 2015).

For the purpose of comparing the two styles, moving the herd from one pasture to another is a great example.  Regarding the first style listed, fast and furious, an onlooker is likely to see lots of fast activity, cattle running around, dispersing away from the herd looking for an escape, erratic movements by the handlers, and hear frustrated loud voices.  Some of the herd may run through fences and cause damage to property and themselves as well as more work for the handlers.  The onlooker of the second style of cattle handling listed above, psychology based no stress cattle work, will witness a completely different scenario.  The onlooker of this scenario is likely to see handlers on horseback, on foot, or even in a vehicle in front of the herd calling to them in a way that almost sounds like a song and hear the herd calling back to the handlers.  The herd will likely be lined up in small groups calmly following their trusted leader.  There will be no running around by the handler, handler’s horse, or the cattle.  When the handler arrives at the new pasture ahead of the cattle he or she will likely simply move to the side of the gate and allow the herd to flow in.  If there is good grass on the other side, the likelihood of the herd continuing in is optimal.  If not, or if the herd hasn’t yet learned this pattern of behavior, the handler will continue into the new pasture to ensure the herd follows her in.  If there is a second handler behind the herd, he or she will close the gate calmly once the entire herd is inside.  If alone, the handler who led the herd will simply wait for the herd to settle and begin calmly grazing in the new pasture, then go back and close the gate.

Whether in the position of manager or team member in a subordinate position to the manager, most people would agree that the second experience described with all team members working together, supporting one another, heading in the same direction, happy to stay together, and go where the leader asks is ideal for any organization.

Consideration of the first scenario is valuable, as well, and can help identify metaphors for key attributes such as chasing from behind, a leader using loud voices, erratic intimidating behavior and the leader being clearly frustrated with no forethought given to the needs of the team.  Contemplating the metaphor of the team scattering emotionally, mentally, or physically represented by how the cattle scatter as a result of this type of leadership is a powerful opportunity to gain clarity from both the manager’s perspective as well as the team member’s perspective that it does not provide desired results.  From a pragmatic point of view, unnecessary funds spent on longer time required to complete tasks, due to employees symbolically running away from management is a great reason to take into account the potential improvement to management of an organization through learning experientially with cattle work.

Understanding Cattle Behavior and Body Language

In an effort to offer more understanding of how working with cattle has the potential to teach management skills, information on cattle behavior and body language is included.

Cattle have what could be compared to a bubble around them; an invisible bubble.  This bubble is called the flight zone.

Understanding the flight zone, or personal space of the cow, is the key to easy, quiet handling.  If a cow becomes excited, the flight zone increases.  When cattle are worked in an enclosed space such as an alley or crowd pen, great care must be taken to avoid putting too much pressure on the flight zone.  This can result in panic, jumped fences, and cattle turning back on the handler (Grandin, 1980, p. 1-2).

Cattle have wide angle vision and can see behind themselves.  The only blind spot cattle have is a small area directly behind them.  When in the herd, cattle keep a visual connection with each other when moving.  When moving, the most dominant of the herd will be in the center and the subordinate animals will be on the perimeter.  Cattle are a prey species, and are ever vigilant.  They tend to fear something that is new to them.  For example, Dr. Temple Grandin points out that “cattle in feedlot pens may fear cars passing by on the highway, but soon learn to ignore them” (Grandin, 1980, p. 1).

Specific examples of the needs of cattle were found in the works of Dr. Grandin (1980) through recommendations on facility design.  This work can help the reader better understand cattle.

  • Cattle have poor depth perception when they are moving with their heads up.
    • This is why they balk at shadows and strange objects on the ground.  A single shadow that falls across a scale or loading chute can disrupt handling.  The lead animal will often balk, which affects the herd.
  • Cattle will balk if they see flapping objects such as coats flung over a chute fence or a shiny reflection off a car bumper (p. 3).

The above examples are intended to give the reader some specific insights on experiences that might occur when seeking the opportunity to learn about personal tendencies as well as gain management skills and knowledge through real experiences working cattle.

Another important factor to consider regarding cattle behavior and how working with cattle can teach management and leadership skills is the fact that the specific action required of the handlers can change at any given moment.  In order to keep the herd moving it may be important to get closer, putting pressure on the invisible bubble.  At any moment the herd could start to show signs of being ready to scatter or look for an escape which can be indicative of too much pressure being put on them in which case the handlers need to calmly, quickly, and efficiently back off and remove some pressure.  The handlers need to know when to keep some pressure on to keep the herd moving forward, especially in an alley way because the herd could turn back on the handlers especially if there are bulls, as they could start to have a go at each other if there is any lag time in the herd’s forward movement.  This particular experience of understanding the feel it takes to move a herd is extremely valuable for managers, as it offers the opportunity to recognize that the job can look easy to someone because of the relaxed nature of the team and leader(s), yet this kind of outcome requires a strong leader with experience who has the team’s needs as top priority.  Experiencing this first hand with a herd of cattle will offer insight on individual styles and many managers will have no choice but to face personal shortcomings that show up in the moment by moment reactions the herd has.  Facing the hard truths about personal management style in this experiential setting offers a powerful opportunity to gain a deep level of self reflection and also offers lessons on how one can improve management style.  For example, a manager may attempt to move a few head of cattle from one pasture into another through a simple alley way and discover the cattle are not willing to move.  The opposite could occur and the cattle could get excitable and scatter.  The manager can be invited to think of the cattle as a symbol for their team or employees and ask themselves if they notice similar reactions from people on a consistent basis.  If so, understanding that too much pressure or not enough pressure was put on the cattle to create the outcome they experienced offers a tool to learn about themselves as well as a clear strategy to make a change (Grandin, 1980).

Managers can learn to add pressure or remove pressure when leading their team based on what he or she recognized to be out of balance in their leading style in the above exercise. Perhaps the most valuable result of an exercise like this is the lesson that a successful leader must remain emotionally fit, be able to adjust to fit the situation in any moment, and help their team remain calm while making needed adjustments to keep moving forward toward the goal.

Management Styles and Environments

Research for this work included reviewing different examples of herd management styles and environments.  One example is the open range, meaning no fences or chutes are available and cattle are worked and cared for completely out in the open.  This environment makes it more important than in any other for psychology to be used so the cattle are not looking for a way to run based on distrust and fear of the handlers (Cote, 2004).  The second type of handling listed earlier in this work, psychology based cattle work, is the key to ensuring success on the open range.

An intriguing example of management is the strategy used by Maasai pastoralists in Kenya, Africa who utilize every person in the family and community.  A study was conducted that showed specific labor inputs depicting children did most of the herding, men supervised most of the watering, dipping, and spraying, and women did most of the milking.  The same study presented the fact that cattle provide milk and food for the families.  However, the most important factor was that the number of cattle owned was representative of the wealth of each farmer.  Due to the necessity of having cattle as a currency as well as to survive, these Maasai pastoralists were faced with a a need to take labor and time efficiency very seriously as well as ensure as little loss of cattle as possible.  The concept of this particular management style shares a resemblance with the bottom line needs of an organization.  An organization must ensure labor is used optimally, efficiency of time and funds is implemented, and must establish systems that result in as little loss of valuable personnel as possible (Bekure, de Leeuw, Grandin, Neate, 1991)



To accomplish an organization’s bottom line needs, management personnel with skills that result in success for the team and inspire as well as empower employees are necessary.  Spending time working with cattle through the experience of moving and sorting the herd with education on cattle behavior and management styles that work and don’t work has the potential to offer meaningful resonance, skills, and knowledge to managers that can deeply affect an organization’s potential for long term and lasting success.



Cote, S. (2004). Stockmanship and Handling Cattle on the Range. Arco: Natural Resources

Conservation Service Boise, Idaho.

Animal Behaviour Blog. (2015). Animal Behaviour, Resources for applied ethology: Cattle. Retrieved from

Bekure,S., & de Leeuw P N., & Grandin B E., & Neate P J H (eds). (1991). Labour and Stock

Management. Maasai herding: An analysis of the livestock production system of Maasai

pastoralists in eastern Kajiado District, Kenya. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ILCA Systems

Study 4.

Grandin, T. (1980). Cattle Behavior and Handling Facility Design For Feedlots. Retrieved from


Grandin, T. (2002). Understanding motivation of cattle and horses.  Retrieved from








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s