Handle with Care (Help with Bison)
By Tim Frasier
Bison are not cattle and, if you ever forget that, they will quickly remind you. Working ‘with’ these unique animals instead of against them is at the heart of humane handling that is both efficient and profitable.
Humane has become a word well known to the modern meat consumer. It is also a word well known and established among bison producers. Many of the production models in the bison industry of today are based on the species’ needs from a physical perspective, as well as behavioral considerations. In many cases, the bison producer is motivated by a personal dedication to respect the species, while in other cases they are motivated by the bottom line.
Bison are a unique species among livestock requiring a different, species-specific approach to husbandry and handling. This is the very essence of humane protocol and working ‘with’ animal behavior, as opposed to against it, to the benefit of the bottom line, is business as usual in most bison operations.
There are many layers of humane handling protocol used in the modern bison industry, and humane bison handling can be achieved by everyone, regardless of the size and scale of their operation or funding. There are also several methods to achieve and maintain levels of protocol proficiency for profit.
First of all, it is important to identify what is meant by a humane protocol. Some people mistakenly perceive the message and premise, as extremism and unnecessary. The opposite can be argued when a humane protocol is understood.
Farm, ranch and other animal operations make use of ‘protocol’ in all aspects of their daily functions. For example, the protocol when you go through a gate is to close it behind you. The protocol when the tractor is low on fuel is to refuel it. The protocol when the animals are low on feed is to feed them or move them. The concept of a protocol is all around us and though undocumented or formalized when a protocol is not followed documentation and stern formalization may occur.
The concept of humane handling protocol attempts to prevent, mitigate, educate and improve all things husbandry and handling to the benefit of the animals, thus the bottom-line. Formalized protocol, for the bison producer, is a valuable tool that allows for scoring, self-analysis, and improvement for efficiency and higher returns. Handling should always be documented scored and analyzed. Without this, it is very much like not having a fuel gauge on the tractor or pickup, resulting in ever-present uncertainty, and the occasional long walk home.
“The use of numerical scoring for ranch operations is very important because it helps maintain high standards. Measuring handling will help keep standards high,” says Dr. Temple Grandin, professor at Colorado State University and designer of livestock handling facilities currently used throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.
The first step in a humane handling protocol development is an understanding of the bison species. This general understanding of the species is helpful in developing a positive relationship with your herd specifically, but only from a general perspective. Bison are very instinctual and are predisposed to a number of very consistent behavioral responses to being handled and managed.
When bison exhibit negative behaviors, the most common human response is to focus on the behavior being exhibited. The negative behavior may, in fact, be the result of something “not present” and more about an instinctual response to prior experiences, separation, handling techniques or visual aspects of the facilities.
There are three basic behavioral “roots” for bison — fear, separation anxiety, and escape. The value in understanding these behavioral roots can facilitate a more positive relationship between people and bison. The value of a positive relationship with the bison is stress reduction, yielding more production and reduced losses, which will always pay more. There are many Wild West stories about how unmanageable bison are, how dangerous they are, and they all begin with intentionally and forcibly, but unwittingly, causing the bison to act upon one or all of these three behavioral roots.
The recipe for success in handling bison is to mitigate fear, manage separation anxiety and allow escape. This recipe is well known and widely used throughout the bison industry. Over the years, producers have learned and subscribe to the axiom that you can make a buffalo do whatever ‘they’ want to do. This is easy to accomplish if allowed the tool and perspective of understanding them.
When the word “gathering” is used, it brings to mind cattle drives, chases and post-Western cinematic drama of a corral filled with the conquered. This is not humane, productive or labor efficient, nor is it in any way the correct method of gathering bison.
The most efficient method of gathering bison is to harvest a positive relationship by feeding them where you want them, and simply closing the gate. Feeding them in a large corral or in close proximity to the corral in a smaller control pasture is the best way to mitigate their fear of being contained. Low-stress bison gathering is simply a matter of planning. Never plan to gather bison and work them the same day. Always gather a day or two before you plan to work them. This time allows time to accept containment and will reduce stress and benefit labor efficiency during the bison work the next day.
Stress reduction and labor efficiency are both moneymakers and components of a humane protocol. If the holding corral or pen is not big enough, negative behaviors will become obvious and, if documented, can be addressed for the future.
Bison need extra room when they are contained and/or in waiting to be allowed through the handling facility. Extra space allows them to escape from each other and reduces the incidence of bison-on-bison injuries and losses. Following the same protocol, it is much more humane and productive to keep all pens and alleys loose or at 30 percent (or less) capacity when working bison.
Moving Them into the Tight
Moving bison “into the tight” means moving them into the sorting area prior to alleys or tubs. The slower and easier this is done by the handlers, the more productive the rest of the work will go.
The use of balance point technology (moving parallel to them in the opposite direction) will prove beneficial if the bison acknowledge the entrance as a release or escape. This can be accomplished by either having the entrance to the tighter pens in the same direction as that which they came from when originally contained, or developing a routine behavior of release or escape through that gate.
If this is not an option, then this is one area and situation, in which the bison may have to be driven. This should be done very passively, if possible, in an effort not to create unnecessary fear or speed in the bison. Ultimately the most productive scenario is to have the pen constructed in such a way that the bison perceive they are escaping every time they move to exactly where you need them.
Handling Bison in Tight Quarters
This is the area in the handling system that can produce the largest number of losses in shrink, injury and or actual mortality. Once in the smaller pens, the behavior becomes elevated because of fear. If their fear is met with fear from the handlers, it will elevate behaviors even more and possibly result in human or animal injury. Similarly, if their speed is met with speed by the handlers, they become frantic and reckless. So staying slow, steady and relaxed is the best approach.
When bison become frantic or reckless, stop what you are doing and wait until they calm down and regain their behavioral bearings. One of the most common causes of elevated behaviors in bison in tight pens is having too many people helping. This can easily result in too much distraction for the bison.
There should never be more than one person in this station during bison work. All the neighbors, family, additional labor and “friends of the ranch” present to help, can be placed up by the squeeze chute and pre-alleys helping with that process. This phase of the handling process requires the most experienced, knowledgeable and proficient bison handler available.
Bison tend to be ultra-sensitive to everything around them in tight situations and the presence of “unusual-suspects” like your trusty cow dog, a neighbor watching while sitting on the fence or too many helpers in the pens may be less humane, causing your operation unnecessary losses.
The “trusty cow dog/mascot” may particularly have a negative impact on behavior when working bison. Bison instinctually acknowledge dogs as canine predators like wolves. In the presence of wolves, bison become defensive and are prepared to literally fight for their lives. To prove this, one needs only observe the tail and neck posture change of the bison while in the presence of a dog. When the tail extends and/or rises, this is an expression of stress and behavior elevation. When in combination with an arch in the neck, you may well witness attack behavior toward the dog at any moment, and that behavior can easily be transferred to something or someone else. The bison are not in control of this instinct, not to be blamed for it and not being treated humanely when expected to deal with it. The root of the behavior is fear of predation.
Signs of Extreme Stress
These would include but may not be limited to panting for long periods, bison assuming defensive postures, interruption of flow through the facility, bison aggression toward other bison, hitting or making contact with the facilities, aggression towards humans, moving at dead run through the system, vocalizations, and reckless or frantic behavior in the pre-alleys. All of these behaviors are expressions and manifestations of stress and can be minimized or totally managed away from by slowing down and working ‘with’ the bison’s behavior.
The use of documentation or audits for scoring and analysis can be tools used for managing away from and mitigating stress.
From the Pens to the Pre-Alleys
The pen and pre-ally area (or tub) should feature many gates to prevent the bison from doubling back. This will be an area of high stress and should be straight. Harvesting the existing behavioral response of the bison to pressure, which is to follow other bison in the lead and escape to visible larger space, will be accomplished with straight shapes.
The alley gates or set gates should be solid or opaque but with the horizontal supports of the gate exposed to the inside and available as footholds for handlers in systems that require handlers to be in with the bison.
Whenever possible and without compromising the flow of livestock, it is always a good idea to remove people from potential danger in handling system plans. Making the set-gates opaque prevents escape-option behavior in the bison and reduces stress, handler frustration, injury, and flow interruption. It also increases labor/time efficiency and returns.
Handling Protocol in Pre-Alleys and Tubs
As in the other facility components, keeping the pre-alleys and tubs loose or at less-than-capacity is more humane and less costly to the producer. If a rise in negative behaviors is observed in this area, the protocol should be to take a break from working the animals once the tub and/or pre-alleys are empty. It is not humane to take breaks while leaving bison in these areas. For every second they remain stressed, they are losing weight and the producer is losing money. Many operations use bucking chute-style pre-alleys and tubs prior to the squeeze chute. Protocol should not allow handlers to “loom” over the top of the bison while waiting to move forward toward the squeeze chute. In systems where alleys are open and handlers are visible, handler traffic should be kept to a minimum as reaction to it is observed in the bison.
When stalling occurs from the tub into the pre-alley, it should be documented on the scoring sheet, analyzed and used as a tool to improve. Stalling is a failure of the system. Attracting forward motion by the bison may be as simple as handling technique or adding the use of reflective colors (ultra-white) to the system.
The objective is a system that attracts the bison to willingly move forward, as opposed to extrusion or pushing the bison through the system. Some pushing may still be necessary but the overall process will be much more efficient, humane and profitable if the bison are attracted to forward motion while being pushed. Identify the root of the problem behavior instead of focusing on the behavior, as a problem.
The ultra-white reflective color can be used in the system as a visual trigger for forward motion by the bison. The placement should be in full view of the bison and at the end point in the direction you want them to go. The color will attract their attention and typically results in movement the same direction.
Balance point technology is a very productive tool in moving the animals, once attracted to forward motion. This can be accomplished with an object like a rattle-paddle placed in front of the animal and once acknowledged, moved quickly down their side causing them to move past it, and forward.
In the case of a problem animal behavior, and refusal to move forward, it is not uncommon for the decision to be waiting. This is an acceptable time to take a break with an animal in the system while leaving the option of forward motion available. Most of the time, before the break is over, forward motion will occur.
In the Squeeze Chute
Squeeze chutes used for bison should be ‘made’ for bison. Not for the reason of strength but rather for the reason of working “with” their behavior humanely. There are many manufacturers that make bison chutes which have good reputations within the bison industry. This is one area of the handling system in which producers should never skimp.
Well-built bison chutes are solid-sided or opaque and result in the bison relaxing once inside. The top will be solid as well, reducing the incident of bison “raring” in them in an attempt to escape. Once in the squeeze, all of the behavioral roots become a factor. Separation anxiety — they are alone and they know it; Fear — they are afraid of close contact with humans; Escape — they will exhaust all escape options.
In a chute that is opaque or solid and fitted with a crash gate, escape will be allowed -forward, into the crash gate allowing the chute operator to catch the head and squeeze the body. They will move through this part of the system slower if the head gate is closed as they enter the squeeze chute and then opened after the rear gate has closed and prevented their escape by backing up. Forward motion into a closed head gate will be facilitated by the inside of the headgate being ultra-white in color.
Releasing bison from the squeeze chute should be done after backing them out of the headgate, closing it back again, and securing the crash-gate in open position so as to prevent injury. With the crash-gate open and when the bison is standing quietly, open the head gate quickly and allow the bison to escape without being pushed. This process may help with the forward motion and reduced stress levels of the bison in future works.
When the Works Done
The next phase of working bison is equal in importance, if not more important, than any other. Humane protocol dictates that the positive relationship between bison and people be maintained by holding the herd for 24 hours in a control pasture before releasing them.
During this time, normal feeding and care should take place until normal response to ranch operations is observed, or 24 hours has past.
Upon release, the bison should be fed in the containment, after which the gates should be left open allowing the bison to leave at their own pace. The advantage to this humane protocol is that the bison will remain willing to come back or be gathered for future works with increasing ease as opposed to increasing challenges. In other words, make their last experience with containment as positive as possible.
Formalizing Your Own Humane Handling
There are no standards for humane certification or welfare approval that include audit forms for humane bison handling and that are accredited by bison science and industry. Many people perceive this as invasive and unnecessary, but it can be used as a tool for improved efficiency and higher returns.
You may be surprised at what you notice, analyze and improve to your operations benefit, once you begin documentation. Bison producers, by and large, are extremely conscious of humane protocol because the species dictates that the producer work with them, and do it their way or get little or nothing accomplished. This fact makes bison producers one of the most humane, albeit un-formalized, animal production models in existence.
Developing your own humane handling audit forms can be as simple as keeping a clipboard at the squeeze chute and recording any and all incidents that happen and where, or you can make the record-keeping as complex as you want. Scoring systems can be employed in handling audits for the purpose of establishing over-all proficiency.
By recording what happens in the handling facility, the information can improve your efficiency. As bison become more and more valuable, attention to how humane, labor efficient and productive your handling system is will translate to happier, healthy bison and higher profits.