I don’t remember an exact date that the stockmanship tutorials began, but my schooling first started as a little girl as I helped my grandpa feed calves on our dairy. He had a great respect and affinity for animals that he passed down to my dad and me.

I recall his voice, low, slow and steady, reminding me not to make any sudden moves around cattle, and to always make sure they knew I was there so as not to surprise them. Or, he’d point out to watch an animal’s body language because that provided a good clue as to whether a heifer or cow was curious, scared or irritated — and that I needed to adjust my response accordingly. There were plenty of “teachable” moments, but as with other farm kids, the lessons sunk in over time.

I still use his advice every day. While I am no cow whisperer, I am so grateful for the basic foundation that I’ve been given.

But it sometimes seems as though stockmanship is becoming a lost art.

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.”

It’s easy to forget that not everyone working on farms and ranches — or enrolled in animal science programs — has stockmanship skill or experience, or a farm background from which to build upon. In fact, those with this skill-set are a distinct minority.

For instance, nearly 85 percent of students enrolled in University of Illinois’ “Working with Farm Animals” (ANSC 103) have little to no experience working with animals in a farm setting. While this percentage seems staggering, it's reflective of many animal science departments today. Urban females with aspirations to attend veterinary school make up one of the largest demographics of students in animal sciences.

ANSC 103 was developed when the university’s professors began noticing that fewer students understood the basics of working with farm animals.

Walt Hurley, University of Illinois professor of animal sciences, says, "In my upper-level lactation biology class, most students did not have the fundamental knowledge to effectively handle the animals in order to complete their class projects."

The first ANSC 103 class was offered in 1996 for 16 students to teach practical stockmanship and animal handling skills. Hands-on labs cover basic handling skills for dairy, beef, swine, sheep and poultry. This fall, the class becomes mandatory for animal science student to take this class prior to their junior year.

Fortunately, the University of Illinois is not the only school to take a renewed interest in stockmanship skills. The University of Minnesota, Ohio State University, Kansas State University and a number of others have developed programs to help students learn these essential skills.

Industry organizations and partnerships are also stepping up to spread the message of stockmanship.

It’s about time. Good stockmanship is critical for the future of our industry. Grandpa knew it; we need to embrace it, too.

For more information, check out these stockmanship resources:

Animal Care Training Web site
Dairy Animal Care Program
Stockmanship YouTube video
Dairy Stockmanship
Cattle Expressions
Impact of human-animal interactions on health and productivity of farm animals
Stockmanship skills wanted

“Low-Stress Cattle Handling” DVD
Michigan State University Extension, P.O. Box 168, Chatham, MI 49816. Cost is $25; make checks payable to Michigan State University.

Source: Shannon Linderoth, associate editor, Dairy Herd Management