Monday, August 3, 2015

Pioneer Day Pack Trip

Sometimes we have experiences in life that give us a greater appreciation for the unseen benefactors that have enriched our lives in ways that aren't readily apparent.  My family and I recently had such an experience, one that was so deep that the only way to do it justice was to write it down.

I recently moved home to Idaho from Alberta.  While it was tough to say goodbye to Wild Rose Country, it has been nice to be back around family and friends in the land of my forefathers.  One of the things about Idaho that I have missed while I was abroad was the 24th of July, or Pioneer Day.  Pioneer day celebrates the day that Brigham Young and the first company of Mormon Emigrants arrived in The Great Basin.  The day is recognized by the Utah State Government as a holiday, and many communities in Idaho celebrate the day as well.

On this most recent Pioneer Day, I had the day off.  One of the things my wife Ruby and I love to do more than anything else is to pack into the mountains with horses.  On this particular weekend we decided to ride into a canyon drained by Palisades Creek near Swan Valley, Idaho.  Palisades Creek is fed by 2 beautiful lakes, called the Lower and Upper Palisades Lakes.  Both of these lakes are a deep turquoise and support large populations of trout and wildlife.  I had never been to either lake, but they have always been on the list of places I have wanted to see.  On all of our previous pack trips, we have gone with Ruby's family and have relied upon the experience and wisdom of Ruby's dad to guide us through.  This was going to be the first time that we were going to do a pack trip by ourselves, and to top it off we would be taking our 18 month old daughter Ayla along.  Ayla went on her first horse excursion with us when she was only 6 months old, and has spent many full days in the saddle since.  Nonetheless, taking her on an overnight pack trip with just Ruby and I was definitely taking things to a new level.

We did our best to get things ready on the day before our scheduled departure, however, as often happens, I wasn't able to get away from work as early as I wanted.  As a result, we had to postpone much of our preparation until the morning of the pack trip.  As this was our first pack trip without Ruby's dad, and his knowledge and equipment, it took us a little while to make sure we had all the supplies we thought we might need.  After a long morning of running around and picking up this and that, we finally arrived at the trailhead around 4:00 in the afternoon.

It took us about a half an hour to saddle our horses and throw a sorry attempt at a diamond hitch on our reluctant pack horse; a broodmare named Ally that had been plucked out of my mother's small remuda a couple of days before.  By the time I threw the last few loops over the canvas manty, storm clouds had gathered into the canyon.  We got Ruby and Ayla situated on Moonshine, Ruby's sorrel gelding, and as I swung up onto my palomino Slim, the first drops of rains started coming down.  With our Border Collie, Jax taking point and our Australian Shepherd, Cowgirl riding drag, we headed up the trail towards parts unknown with storm clouds gathering quickly overhead.

The trail wound its way up a narrow canyon along a very boisterous and rapidly rising Palisades Creek.  Fortunately, the Palisades Lakes are a very popular destination for hikers and packers alike, and the Forest Service does a good job of maintaining the trails.  However, because the canyon is so narrow, the trail frequently crosses over the creek by means of several high, narrow pack bridges.  Both Slim and Moonshine have always been very good about going over bridges.  Still, I couldn't help but hold my breath in just a little as I looked over the edge of those bridges and watched Ruby and my baby girl come across behind me.  Several of those bridges were 20 or 30 feet over the water, and most of them did not have any kind of guard rails.  I've been on other pack trips where green pack horses would balk at bridges and even dive off into bogs rather than go across.  Thankfully, Ally proved to be willing to follow and we didn't have any trouble.

The rain continued to come down, but we worked our way steadily up towards the lower lake.  All the while, Jax would run a few hundred feet ahead then stop and turn around and look at me as if to say, "Come on, shake a leg!"  I would sometimes call to him and he would reluctantly come back just long enough to whip around and go on around the next bend in the trail.  "One of these times" I kept thinking to myself, "he's going to come back with a bear on his heels . . ."  Still, it brought a smile to my face.  In his little Border Collie brain, he had a job to do, and that job was to get us up the mountain, and nothing was going to deter him.  After about 4 miles, we started up a series of switch backs that put us out into a meadow nestled within the terminal moraine of an ancient glacier.  The glacier had long ago deposited hundreds of narrow, jagged boulders in rows that resembled pickets along the wall of some stone age fortress.  I don't know for sure, but I assume that this series of boulders is how the Palisades lakes got their name.

As we had ascended the switchbacks, we noticed that Ally's pack was starting to list a little to starboard, so once we reached the meadow we decided to stop and redo the pack.  While I was cinching down my slightly improved diamond hitch, made possible by some suggestions from Ruby, Jax suddenly broke off into a run across the meadow after some unseen quarry, all the while baying in a high pitched whine that I'd never heard him utter before.  As near as I could figure, either he was onto the biggest chase of his life, or he was being ripped to shreds my some quarry that turned out to be a predator.  We called after him, but a little switch in his Border Collie brain had gone off; as far as he saw it he had a job to do and nothing was going to deter him.

Needless to say, we had ourselves a dilemma.  It was getting well into the evening, and we still had 4 miles to go.  The rain had not stopped since we had started, and now we had a dog missing.  We went up the trail a ways, not sure if he was waiting up ahead or where we should go.  We soon discovered that the palisades of boulders were actually a dam that formed the lower lake, but we could not find Jax anywhere.  We went back to the meadow to see if he had come back to the spot where he'd left us.  A different trail went out the backside of the meadow into a canyon that veered off in a different direction than where we were heading.  I had come to the conclusion, that we couldn't just go on ahead and wait for Jax to find us, our best bet was to stick around until either he came back or I could go look for his shredded remains.  I had seen a sign that indicated that there was a horse pasture up the new canyon about a quarter mile, so we rode until we came to a small meadow that contained about an acre of lush mountain pasture.  Miraculously, as we entered the meadow we heard a bark coming from the other side.  I called out to Jax who came bounding back along the trail, thankfully unhurt.  I wanted to bawl him out but I was so happy to see him that I just said, "This way Jax", and turned back for the main trail.  I only went about 100 feet before a little voice inside of me said, "You aren't going any further tonight, get your family out of this rain."  I turned to Ruby and told her I thought we should stop here for the night and press on to the upper lake in the morning.  She concurred, and we went back to the meadow.

The first order of business was to get the tent set up so that we could keep our bedding dry and have a place to take shelter from the rain.  Ruby had been keeping Ayla dry in the saddle by buttoning her up in her yellow slicker, which worked really well while we were moving.  However, once we stopped we needed a place to keep her dry and warm.  Thankfully, the tent went up quickly and we were able to get Ayla in out of the weather.  The forest service had installed a nice metal hitching post/saddle rack which had just enough room for our two riding saddles and our pack saddle, so we unsaddled the ponies and turned them out to graze.  Slim and Moonshine were both used to being hobbled, but Ally had never been hobbled before.  Ruby put Ally's hobbles on then got knocked over and nearly trampled when Ally tried to take a step in them.  This was unfortunate because of all our horses, she needed the nourishment from grazing the most.  She would eat where she stood, but she was so tired that once she'd eaten a few bites she would just stand there with her head down.  It's always been a source of amazement to me just how quickly a horse that is fat and sassy can be made into a humble bumble by carrying a pack saddle a few miles.  Nonetheless, we had only gone 4 miles that day and we had more than twice that distance to go the next day.  We really needed Ally to eat.

There had been enough rain that getting a fire started proved to be a challenge.  We had brought our aluminum dutch oven and some chicken and potatoes for dinner, but we would need a good fire to cook it with.  Usually dutch ovens are made of cast iron, which holds and distributes heat very well, but is very heavy.  Aluminum is much lighter but requires that the heat from the coals be long lasting and evenly distributed.  Getting coals like that was going to be tough with wet wood.  The only solution was to build a fire large enough to heat the underlying ground and rocks to the point that they would continue to release heat even after the pine coals started to wane.  The only problem was finding enough dry wood.  There were a couple of small dead trees next to camp, so I grabbed our pack axe and chopped them down.  Limbing the trees was labor intensive but enabled me to get the fire started with a dense pile of dead pine needles.  However the greatest challenge to getting enough fuel for a decent fire turned out to be the lack of a saw.  When we would go on pack trips with Ruby's family, her dad usually had a very sharp pack saw on his saddle.  We had somehow overlooked that detail in our preparations, and now I was faced with the daunting task of hacking up those dead trees with an axe.  This problem was compounded by the fact that between getting the tent up, getting the horses squared away, and trying to get a cook fire going, the daylight hours were fading fast.  I came to the conclusion that chopping those logs up would take too much time and too much energy.  So, I made a few quick cuts on the thinner sections to get enough small pieces for the the flames to get going, then I threw the remaining large segments on in a large pile.  Soon we had a bonfire almost ten feet tall.

Normally I wouldn't risk a fire this large in the forest, but the surrounding area was so soaked from the steady rain that I didn't figure it would be much of a problem.  In fact it had rained steadily since we had pitched the tent, and as soon as the horses were out grazing, Ruby had gone into the tent with Ayla.  Once I had the fire going, I discovered that while I had been out playing Paul Bunyan, Ruby had been attacking the problem of dinner from a different angle.  Ayla, like most small children, did not have the patience to wait for the perfect coals, but Ruby had brought along some summer sausage, cheese, and crackers.  While I had been building the fire, they had been in the tent contentedly munching away.

I opened the tent door and decided to abandon my plans for dutch oven chicken.  We all piled into the tent and enjoyed our cold camp meal.  Ayla was perfectly giddy.  She was bouncing off the walls of the tent and using her toddler sign language to ask for more cheese and crackers.  She accompanied the signs with words like 'mo' and 'pease'.  It was the first chance I'd had that day to just sit back and enjoy the moment.  The burden of taking my family into the wild had proved to be a heavy one, and it had driven me to work extra hard to make sure that everything was taken care of.  I thought about those early pioneers who had crossed the plains of Iowa and Nebraska, and the barren wastelands of Wyoming.  Many of them lost spouses, parents, siblings, and most tragically, children along the way.  The very first pioneers to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley had been driven from comfortable and stately homes in Illinois at bayonet point.  They traveled over a thousand miles in wagons, on horses, and even by walking and pulling handcarts.  We, on the other hand, had driven to a trail head in a pickup and horse trailer and gone a grand total of 4 miles.  Even still, though it could not really compare to the sacrifices those early pioneers had made, I felt a connection to them.  I had tasted a small sample of the worry that comes with having your family exposed to hazards of traveling through the wild, and of having to protect them from the elements.  Of course I didn't bear that burden alone, and in many ways, Ruby was more efficient and practical in her approach to caring for our needs.  But nonetheless, even if I could not fully compare myself to them, I had gained a greater appreciation for what they had gone through.

After we finished our supper, we gave Ayla a bottle and she was soon asleep.  My pants and boots were soaked through from traipsin' around in the rain and wet grass.  So I went out in my camp shorts and crocks and brought the horses in from grazing.  It was at this point that it dawned on me that we hadn't given the horses water since we had loaded them on the trailer at home.  The closest water was at least a half mile away from camp, and the night sky was shrouded in rain clouds.  Walking three horses a half mile in pitch darkness, through the woods, in my shorts and crocks, was not a thought I relished.  Fortunately, the grass in the meadow was very tall, very green, and also very wet.  I decided to take a chance and hope that they had been able to hydrate themselves well enough by grazing.  We had packed some alfalfa cubes and sweet feed to supplement their grazing, so I gave them each a pile of cubes and tied them to the hitching post.  I moved the saddles onto a rock that was under a tree then covered them up with one of the manties.  Finally, I redistributed our supplies into two different categories: those items that would attract a bear, and those that would not.  I filled one canvas panyard with the items that would attract a bear and set out to look for a tree limb to hang it from.

Usually on pack trips, we would rig up a bear pole between two trees, but I hadn't time to do that earlier, and the thought of finding a suitable pole, shinnying up two wet trees, and lashing said pole to those trees in the middle of the night, while it was raining, appealed to me even less than the thought of walking the horses to water.  So I was left with trying to find a suitable tree limb.  This proved to be difficult though, as most of the trees around camp had thin limbs that were densely spaced, and hung at a low angle that made it easy for the rope to slip off.  I could get the pack cinch to go over a branch, but as soon as I would start to haul the 50 lb panyard up into the tree, the limb would snap or the rope would slide off of the limb.  After about half an hour of messing around with this, I decided to just secure the panyard to the base of the tree a fair distance away from camp and hope to heck that any unwanted guests would stay holed up all night in the rain.  I took comfort in knowing that we had 2 dogs that would most likely warn us if anything came too close to camp, though they had curled up under a tree next to the tent as soon as we got to camp and hadn't moved since.  It was feasible that we could all sleep through it and not wake up until after the damage was done.  Nonetheless, it was late, I was soaked, and it was time for me to get some sleep.  I hauled my short barrel 12 gauge shotgun into the tent with me and laid it by my side.  Ruby and Ayla were on the air mattress, so I settled down onto a reasonably comfortable patch of pine needles and drifted off to sleep.

The first thing that woke me up was the horses.  Slim and Moonshine were herd mates, but Ally was a new addition.  So even though I tied the two geldings together on one side of the post and Ally on the other, about midnight they started screeching at each other as they sorted out their positions on the pecking order.  If they had been doing this from the get go, I probably wouldn't have thought much of it, but it started up after several hours of silence, which made me wonder if they were actually screeching at each other, or if there was another large animal in the fray.  I was also still worried about the lack of water.  When horses don't stay hydrated, they are prone to gastrointestinal problems such as cramps, twists, and impactions.  These can be very painful and their occurrence is described broadly as colic.  I had brought some medication along in case we had a horse colic, but even still the thought of dealing with a colicky horse in the mountains filled me with dread.  I grabbed my spotlight and slipped outside for a better look, toting my shotgun along with me.

When I shone my spotlight on the hitching post, all three horses were standing sedately in the rain.  I sighed a big breath of relief.  I walked over to the horses, who seemed ambivalent to my presence.  I placed my fingers under Ally's jaw and found her submandibular artery.  I felt a slow steady woosh of blood go past my fingers and estimated her heart rate to be around 40 beats per minute.  Next I checked Slim's heart rate; it was about the same.  Moonshine's however was 50 to 60 beats per minute; that was a little high.  I stood there for a moment wondering why his heart rate was up.  I listened carefully as I heard the gurgling of his intestines.  Normally, the sound of a horse's intestines moving is a good thing, but sometimes if they are moving too much it's called hypermotility and can be a sign of pain.   Moonshine was just standing there in the rain with his ears slightly back, maybe slightly uncomfortable, but not in any great pain.  I decided to leave it alone for now and go back to bed, though now with one more worry on my mind.

At about 3:00, Jax let out a single 'WOOF!'  Everything had been pretty quiet for the last few hours, but with that single bark my eyes were wide open.  I lay there in the tent with the rain pattering down on the tent and waited for what may follow.  Silence.  Just to be sure, I poked my head out of the tent and shone the spotlight around.  The horses hadn't moved an inch, and everything else seemed to be in order.  I lay back down for another hour or so until Jax let out a series barks.  This time I didn't wait.  I grabbed my shotgun and spotlight and climbed out of the tent.  Everything appeared to be copesthetic, but the food was far enough away that I couldn't see it without walking a hundred feet or so out of camp.  The rain was starting to let up, but the grass was still wet.  I was pretty sure that if there really was a bear eating our food, that it would have made enough noise for both Jax and Cowgirl to hear.  Cowgirl hadn't uttered a peep, and even though it was Jax that had woke me up, he appeared to be largely unconcerned when I came out of the tent.  I debated whether it was really necessary for me to trample out into the dark and check the food, but I didn't think I would be able to sleep until I knew for sure one way or another.  By the time I got to the food my spotlight was running low on power and my feet were soaked, but thankfully the food was just as I had left it.

It was shaping up to be the most uneventful sleepless night in the history of sleepless nights.  Thankfully though, dawn was only a couple of hours away.  I wondered if the pioneers had as much trouble with insomnia as I did, and realized that the answer was no, theirs was much worse.  Not only did they have to worry about their stock, and their food, but there were also marauding bands of vigilantes, prairie fires, and blizzards.  While many consider it a trite stereotype, the fact is that most of the tribes they encountered were not exactly friendly either.  While it seemed daunting to me to have to walk a half mile to water, they went for long stretches without any water at all.  When they did find water it was often contaminated with cholera and dysentary.  No wonder they never smiled in any of their pictures.  Those might not have been my exact thoughts at 4:00 in the morning as I stood there in the dark with my spotlight dying and my feet soaked, but they would have been good thoughts to have given the circumstances.  Whatever my thoughts were or were not at the time, I only had a couple of hours before I had to be up and at'em, so I crawled back into the tent and went to sleep again.

It seems like when I'm camping that I can't sleep as soon as it gets light.  If I'm back home the sun coming up seems to only serve to make me want to sleep longer, but when I'm camping, as soon as the first gray shafts of light start to brighten the eastern sky I'm awake.  This morning was no exception.  The clouds had cleared off and the sky was a bright shade of gray when I emerged from the tent.  The first order of business was to get the horses out and grazing again.  If Moonshine had been colicking the night before, he didn't seem to be any worse for the wear this morning.  The grass was still wet so I figured I would let the horses eat their water again rather than try to lead them to the lake.

I got the fire going again and started making plans for breakfast.  We had brought dehydrated hashbrowns, sausage, bacon, and eggs along with my 3 foot diameter steel frying pan.  I had been introduced to oversized frying pans while on pack trips with my in laws.  An oversized pan distributes heat well, and allows you to cook multiple items simultaneously.  It was an easier and more robust system than having to wait for the fire to die down to coals as the frying pan could simply be held over the flames then taken off as needed if things got too hot.  The pan was too large to be packed on a human backpack, but it fit perfectly under the lashings of a diamond hitch.  The biggest hurdle to be crossed was water.  We needed water to rehydrate the hashbrowns, and would need even more water to clean up the dishes after breakfast.  We had brought along several bottles of water for us to drink, but it had to last us throughout the rest of the day.  So, I grabbed a couple of empty pots and hiked down to the lake.  It was a beautiful day, and the rain had left everything looking crisp and clean.  As I walked among the rock palisades, the lake came into view.  The color of the water varied from a milky white at the shoreline to a deep turquoise as the depth increased.  On the South side of the lake there was a bull moose feeding in the shallows, and a fine cloud of mist clung to the steep, timbered hillsides.  The lake drained into Palisades Creek through a wide outlet that ran under a wooden pack bridge.  I walked across the bridge and down to the bank where I could fill my pots.  Carrying the full pots of water the half mile back to camp proved to be awkward, but I made it back just as Ayla and Ruby had gotten up and started moving about camp.  The fire had died down and was smoldering, so I cut down another dead tree and got it going again.  I started some water to boiling in a little camp pot and we settled down to the task of getting breakfast going.

The water was soon boiling and I poured a couple of cups in with the hashbrowns.  As soon as they were ready to go, I threw half a stick of butter in the pan and dumped the hashbrowns, sausage and bacon in after it.  We had forgotten a spatula, so I moved the food gingerly around the pan with a fork.  Cooking over a fire is 1 part science and 3 parts art.  You have to detect the hotspots and coolspots quickly then readjust the pan's position constantly to keep the food from burning while simultaneously keeping it hot enough to cook.  It takes a little practice, but I'd had lots of that on our other pack trips with Ruby's family.  We soon had a pan full of golden hashbrowns, crisp bacon, and sizzling sausage.  We knew better than to bring eggs still in their shells, instead we had cracked all of the eggs and put them into a sealed container.  I cleared off a patch of greasy metal in the pan and held it over the flames until it was good and hot.  I dumped the eggs in and continuously folded the edges into the center until we had a nice scramble.  We pulled the pan off flames and tucked into our breakfast.  Food always tastes better when you're camping, but this food was sweet ambrosia.  It was greasy, salty, and full of flavor.  We had brought way more than we needed, so the dogs got to partake in the feast as well.  It was a great way to welcome in the new day after such a long, dark night.

We were just finishing up the last few morsels when Ruby looked up and jumped about 2 feet straight in the air.  While we had been focused on our breakfast, the bull moose I had seen in the lake had made his way up to our camp.  He was no more than 20 feet away when Ruby spotted him.  I think the moose was as surprised as Ruby because as soon as she moved he quickly made a right turn and swung wide around our camp.  The horses took particular interest in his presence, but thankfully he was not in a disposition to make a nuisance of himself and soon disappeared on the other side of the meadow.  The dogs had surprisingly been silent throughout the whole episode, and the presence of this moose, along with whatever animal Jax had chased the prior evening made me wonder if our camp lay on a major corridor of animal movement between the lake and the canyon.  Who knows what animals may have passed by in the night without our knowledge.  I felt very grateful in that moment for whatever protection we might have unknowingly benefited from.  We had said a very heartfelt prayer prior to our departure, asking our Father in Heaven for protection.  As far as I could tell, he had heard our prayer, and was blessing us abundantly.

After breakfast we focused on getting our gear dry and ready to be packed.  The sun was starting to filter in through the trees, and the meadows were awash in its brilliant warmth.  We arranged the canvas manties on the grass and moved the bedding and wet gear onto them to dry.  We then moved the tent out from under the trees and flipped it upside down to let it dry.  We soon had everything lined out and ready to go on the pack horse.  Ally seemed more than a little reluctant this morning, but she stood like a champ as we cinched down the pack saddle and threw on the panyards.  The bedding went on last, then we covered everything up with the manties and threw the diamond hitch over top.  With the frying pan and pack axe secured snuggly under the lashings, I threw my shotgun over my shoulder and mounted up.  We left our little campsite behind and moved up the canyon towards the upper lake.

Part of our purpose in coming on this trip was to scout out places where we could camp on subsequent trips, and we saw several.  The stretch of Palisades creek that flowed into the lower lake was much more level than the outlet, and meandered through the canyon amongst a dense bottom of willows and reeds.  It was perfect habitat for trout.  I saw a handful of fly fishermen out on the water and felt a twinge of envy.  I had brought my fly rod and vest along, but with everything that had gone on it didn't seem like I was going to get a chance to use them.  Nonetheless, I made several mental notes regarding where and how I would camp if we ever came back here.  After a couple of miles we started up a series of switchbacks that went up a much larger terminal moraine behind which lay the waters of the upper lake.  The upper lake was about 5 times the size of the lower lake, but its waters were the same deep shade of turquoise.  Along the trail there was an abundance of wild raspberries, thimbleberries, and gooseberries.  I even saw some berries that looked surprisingly like saskatoons, a berry that was very common in Alberta.  I didn't see any huckleberries, but that doesn't mean there weren't any; the habitat was suitable enough for them.

By the time we reached the upper lake, Ally was starting to play out.  The side of the lake where the moraine formed a natural dam was designated for hikers, but there was supposedly a very nice horse camp near the inlet.  Unfortunately the inlet was another mile and a half from the moraine.  We started up the trail, but we soon realized making it to the inlet was going to be an ambitious goal.  Ruby voiced as much to me and I replied with, "I think you're right, we'll stop as soon as we can find a good place to rest and have lunch."  For me, a good place to have lunch was one that had fresh water for the horses and for us.  We had depleted most of our bottled water and I really wanted to find a spring before we made the trek back for the pickup.  Unbeknownst to us was the fact that the horse trail took us high over a bluff that overlooked the lake, and put us out right next to the lake inlet.  Ruby was more than a little upset when she realized that we were going to have to go all the way to the horse camp.  Ally was very tired, and we needed her to be able to make the 8 mile journey back to camp.  When we finally made it to a spot with good water and a place to tie up the horses, we were all tired and hot.  We unsaddled Ally to let her back cool off and fed all of the horses what was left of the alfalfa cubes and grain.  We took the horses down to the creek where they all gulped up large quantities of water.  Then I hiked up stream from where the trail crossed the creek and filled our water bottles up.  The water was very cold, and sweet.  I felt a little bit guilty for having pushed the envelope so hard to get here, but at the same time, I was glad to have found such a place, we would definitely be back.

Once we refilled our water bottles, I stretched out on the ground and pulled my hat over my eyes.  I hadn't realized it up until that moment, but I was thoroughly exhausted.  It felt so good to not move.  We ate our lunch slowly and let the horses have about an hour breather.  I didn't have the energy to deal with hobbling them to graze, so we just kept them tied and let them eat their dried rations.  When the hour was up, we led them down for one more drink, then we threw Ally's pack saddle back on and loaded her up again.  Because we had fed the last of the alfalfa and grain, the pack was now considerably lighter than it was when he had started, so at least we had that going for us.  On the ground, Ally was so tired that we could barely get her to budge her by pulling on the lead, so in order for me to get her going I had to dally the lead to my saddle horn.  It seemed a little harsh, but we really had no other choice.  Fortunately, Ally's reluctance to move was more a function of her stubborn nature than her physical ability because as soon as she realized she couldn't pull back as hard as I could pull on her she picked up the pace.

Up to this point, Ayla had been a real trooper.  In truth, she loved riding horses and very seldom complained.  But even she had her breaking point.  She had been very happy to stop at the head of the upper lake, and was not at all impressed when we got back on after only an hour break.  She fussed for the first half mile, but Ruby and I started singing every happy children's song we could think of and this seemed to mollify her.  After a mile she placed her elbows on the cantle and rested her chin on her little hands in a act of supreme boredom.  I had never seen her do that prior to that moment, it was one of the many defiant things she did that made me laugh.  I suppose someday I will regret validating that kind of behavior, but it's hard not to smile at her, even when she's pouty.

We wound our way slowly down the canyon.  After about 4 miles, Ally started to really drag and I had to keep her dallied most of the time.  The only exception was when we went over a bridge or along a steep drop off.  I didn't think Ally would do anything foolish, but just in case I was wrong I didn't want to be tethered to her if she went over the edge.  With this system, we kept up a pretty good pace that allowed us to make it down the canyon in about 3 hours.

Throughout the day, we had seen a multitude of hikers and campers.  I don't think I have ever been in the backcountry where I have seen so many people.  Being on horses, we had the right of way and, as we were also faster than the hikers, we passed by every one we met.  Almost without exception, they would make comments as we went by on the size of our pack and frying pan, a few of them disdainful.  I pretended to ignore the comments, but inside I was thinking, "I'll remember that next time I see you munching on granola for breakfast and I'm having pancakes, bacon, and eggs."  Nonetheless, seeing all those people reminded me how much things were changing.  The Idaho of my youth was slipping away, and would soon be unrecognizable.  The trails that had provided me with solitude and adventure as a boy were now crowded with suburbanites teaming their way out of the burgeoning cities to partake of their own little share of the remaining wild places.

I wondered what the early settlers on Sand Creek near present day Idaho Falls would think if they could see us now.  Would they be proud of the legacy they had forged out of the sagebrush, or would their hearts fill with sorrow at the sight of so much virgin wilderness brought under the yoke of civilization?  If I had to place a bet, I think the majority of them would be proud.  They lived in the wilderness not for recreation, but out of necessity.  The wagon trains and handcart companies came to this land with the express purpose of building a nation.  I think most of those pioneers dreamed of a day when they would be able to sleep soundly in their homes without having to worry about predators, marauders, or being exposed to the elements.  I'm sure there were a few of them that went the other direction; that chose to become part of the wilderness rather than tame it to suit their needs.  These were the mountain men and the cowboys, the romantics of the 19th century that lived on in the character of people like my father in law.  But, these people were likely the minority.  Most of my ancestors had come here to establish a community where their progenitors could be free from the dangers and uncertainties of living so close to the edge of life, and in so doing afford them the time to focus on matters that transcended the day to day requirements of survival.

As the sun started to descend in the sky, we rode into the parking area.  My legs were like rubber as I dismounted my steed and tied the horses to the trailer.  We got the packs and saddles off, and the horses loaded onto the trailer.  The dogs jumped into the back of the pickup and slunk down into the bed; it was one of the few times I'd seen them exhausted.  Jax lay right down with his head on the wheel hub and didn't move.  As I settled into the driver seat, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for an amazing experience with my family, and most of all, for a safe return.  I still didn't feel like I could completely relate to the pioneers, but I definitely had a greater appreciation for them and what they had gone through to provide me and my family with the life that we had.  May we never forget the gift that they have given us.  To quote the great pioneer Brigham Young, "The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth. (Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, 4th ed., p.126-129)"

Happy Pioneer Day.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Sorry Excuses and Customer Service in Cattle Industry

I had a professor in veterinary school, an equine surgeon in fact, who had a phrase he used when people came to him with sorry excuses.  It went something like this: "The horse doesn't give a #@!%"

It was a good lesson to learn early on.  When working up a veterinary case, the horse doesn't care if you are tired, or if your car isn't running well, or if the relevant information wasn't in the assigned reading.  All the horse cares about, is that it is sick or injured, and whether or not you correctly identify and treat its problem is totally independent of whatever excuses you might have.  The horse just plain doesn't care.  Cows care less.  Dogs will look at you like they care, but sorry excuses won't make the difference for them either.  Cats . . . well most cats I know lives their lives in a constant state of indignation, and I'm certain they care the least of all beasts about your sorry excuses.  The bottom line is, sorry excuses won't get you far with animals, and not much further with their owners.

I have found this rule to be especially true in the case of cattle clients.  The men and women who own cattle for a living are well acquainted with just how little cows can care about whatever excuses one might have.  When cows have or create a problem that needs attention, they don't care about the time of day or night.  They don't care about whether or not it's the weekend or a holiday.  They don't care about whatever your plans are, or were.  They just do their cow thing, when they decide to do it, and if you don't respond appropriately the consequences are unforgiving.

As a result, when a cow client calls their veterinarian with a problem, it is hard for them to be sympathetic to whatever else might be going on in your life.  That's not to say they don't recognize that they are inconveniencing you, most of them do and they even feel bad about it deep down.  However, you will likely not get very far with them if you don't at least recognize that they are only calling you because some critter decided to mess up their plans first.

I once had a client from British Columbia drive 2 hours in the middle of the night to my clinic in Alberta with a cow in labor because the vet that was 45 minutes away in Cranbrook couldn't be bothered to deal with the problem.  The veterinarian did at least answer their phone, but when she found out it was a calving, she tried to wash her hands of it by advising the client to "just pull harder."  I wasn't personally present when the phone conversation took place, but I got enough of the content from the cow's owner to surmise that this veterinarian either didn't have a clue about calving, or she was seeking to excuse herself from having to deal with it.  If a rancher calls you in the middle of the night with a calving problem, you can bet they've already tried pulling harder, or if they haven't, they've pulled enough calves to know when not to pull harder.

Either way, the client was not impressed.  When you spend nights on end checking your cows and dealing with whatever problems come your way, it's hard to be sympathetic to someone who can't be bothered to get out of bed long enough to at least give an intelligent assessment of your problem. Too at least be able to say, "I'm sorry, I think you're cow needs a C-section but I am not able to do that for you."  As it was, the cow made it to our clinic in time to deliver a live calf via C-section, however the calf was severely compromised due to prolonged oxygen deficiency and died a few days later.  Had it gone to Cranbrook it might have had a better chance of survival, though I doubt the owners of the cow will ever darken the doorstep of the Cranbrook clinic again.

Interestingly enough, I have found that being sensitive to this aspect of owning cattle will often times get you further than successfully treating the animal.  Most cattle producers have pretty low expectations when it comes to treating sick animals.  There's a saying I've often heard cattle producers use that goes, "if you're going to have livestock, you're going to have deadstock."  All cows die eventually, and there is always going to be a certain percentage that die unexpectedly.  Anyone who makes a serious attempt at earning a living from raising cows will learn this hard lesson very early on.  It is true that as a veterinarian, there are many things that one can do to help keep this number low.  However, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, and being understanding and patient with cattle producers when they call you in the middle of the night will elevate your medical skills in their eyes far beyond what they actually are.

I had this lesson driven home for me on a steer that came into the clinic with a swollen abdomen.  It wasn't a rumen bloat, or a displaced abomasum that I could detect.  However, after performing various tests and examinations, I came to the conclusion that the steer had some form of a blockage in its gastrointestinal tract.  The steer weighed close to 700 lbs and we were heading into the weekend where I would not have the support staff I needed to do a full abdominal exploratory surgery.  I offered to go to surgery right then and there, however the owner opted for a lest costly, more conservative medical treatment.  The medical treatment did not work, and I eventually ended up coming in on a Saturday to do a flank surgery in a hail-mary attempt to find the blockage and relieve it.  The surgery proved to be in vain and the steer eventually died, but these producers showed up at the clinic with some summer sausage and ground beef nonetheless to thank me for my troubles.  They expressed appreciation for being willing to try, especially on a weekend, even though the chances of success were slim.  It was a powerful lesson to me about how important it is to be available for my clients in their hour of need, and if I can't be available, to at least pretend that I give a #$!%.

The same goes for any aspect of veterinary medicine.  There are going to be times when you are busy, or tired, or you simply do not want to deal with it all anymore, and in those times you will be presented with animals that need your help.  They don't care if you're tired, or burnt out, or if you haven't eaten for the last 2 meals.  All they care about it that they are sick, or hurt, and the biological systems that dictate whether they live or die will play out the cards their dealt regardless of what your schedule dictates.  It can make life real tough, but the veterinarians that I respect the most are the ones who can push all of those excuses aside long enough to get the problem taken care of.  Coincidentally, these are also the veterinarians who develop loyal clients, especially in the cattle industry.  So while it is true that the cows may not give a #$!%, if you want to provide superior customer service to their owners, make sure that you do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dog Days of Summer

In Ancient Egypt, the new year began when the star Sirius (the dog star) appeared on the horizon just before the Sun.  5,000 years ago this happened somewhere around the first part of June.  Nowadays, this star does an opening show for the Sun somewhere around the middle of July and continues to do so until about the 2nd week of August, depending upon your lattitude.  This period of time in the summer, when the temperatures seem to be at their hottest and the days tend to loll along without any real sense of urgency has often been referred to as the 'Dog Days'.

In many ways, the 'Dog Days' signify a significant transition period for large animal veterinarians.  All the cows are out to pasture, most of the colts have been castrated, and aside from the odd cut up horse there's not a lot going on for a large animal veterinarian this time of year.  There are several days when I show up to work and there's nothing on the books at all.  At first I try to occupy the time by catching up on all of the things I've put off during calving, bull testing, and managing the inevitable outbreaks of disease that occur in young calves.  When those tasks peter out, I start looking for other outlets and soon remember that I have a blog.

The Dog Days also makes me think about, well, dogs.  Even though the large animal clinic is slow, I work out of 2 clinics, and the other clinic does a sizeable amount of small animal medicine.  For the most part, small animal medicine makes for a very enjoyable and fulfilling break from large animal medicine.  I especially enjoy working with family pets.  Helping an animal recover its health always seems much more rewarding when there is a little boy or girl attached to it.  However, there are times when small animal medicine can make me want to pull my hair out.  Most of these instances involve people whose attachment to their animals surpasses the boundaries of common sense, many times to the detriment of animal welfare.

Over the past 50 some odd years, the values and priorities or our western society have been in a state of flux.  When my Grandfather was my age, the majority of pet dogs and cats lived outside.  It seemed only the very wealthy and/or eccentric had dogs and cats actually living in the house.  The loss of a pet was certainly a sad occasion, but for the most part was marked by a minimum of ceremony, and was often regarded as a necessary part of growing up.  Family relations were considered paramount to whatever bonds may connect man and beast.  Gradually this scale of priorities has shifted; almost to the point of inversion.  Pets have moved from the backyard, to the living room, to the bedroom, and finally to the bed.  It is not uncommon for people who are estranged from their family members to have a pet that they love and cherish more than their own children, siblings, or parents.  Pet loss has gone from being a necessary and expected part of owning a pet to a major ordeal where persons involved may experience feelings of loss akin to the death of a spouse, parent, or child.

This shift in values has been both a boon and a bane to veterinary medicine.  When a person ascribes greater value to their pet, they are more willing to expend resources to diagnose and treat pet illness.  Preventing illness through vaccination, dental cleaning, and routine check-ups has also become more common place.  However, there are times when a pet owner's affection can be detrimental to their pet's health.  For instance, many people equate feeding their pet with showing it love, resulting in widespread pet obesity.  A large portion of the disease that we see in small animal patients could be prevented simply by feeding pets only as much food as they need.  Treats are also a major culprit, and can take on the form of milk bones, which are relatively harmless if given in sufficiently small quantities, to portions off of the dinner plate which really have no place in a pet's diet.  Some people feel the need to cook for their pets, or conversely, feed them raw basic ingredients.  Often times these programs are elaborate and difficult to follow, and as such, mistakes in formulating rations are common.  Ironically, many dogs and cats on homecooked or raw diets become deficient in nutrients that are commonly found in most commercial pet foods.

Another way that affectionate pet owners do their pets a disservice is through end of life decisions.  Many times pets are allowed to languish and suffer through chronic, terminal diseases because their owners simply cannot bring themselves to let go.  Sometimes these diseases are left untreated due to financial constraints.  However, even when finances permit an aggressive diagnostic and treatment regimen, there comes a point when keeping your pet alive because you cannot bear to let it go becomes inhumane.

Along with this rise in grief over pet loss, has come a rise in the number of litigation cases over the loss of pets to medical errors.  For the bulk of modern history, pets have been considered chattel by the law, thus relegating any litigation to a matter of the intrinsic value of the animal.  However recently there have been court cases where bereaved pet owners have sued for emotional losses. While these types of cases may seem like a victory for animal rights to some, their existence puts the animal health industry on a very slippery slope.  Once a 'free to a good home' puppy that has no intrinsic market value begins to carry a treatment liability exceeding tens of thousands of dollars, the cost of obtaining the puppy remains small while the cost of performing veterinary medicine will grow exponentially.  Fewer veterinarians will be able to afford keeping the doors to their clinics open, which will mean a scarcity of veterinary clinics with no change in the pet population.  As the demand for veterinary services increases with this scarcity, so too will the price of obtaining those services.

While I am not advocating that we love our pets less, I am advocating a little bit of perspective.  First, as pet owners, we need to cope with the fact that we are almost certainly destined to outlive our pets.  As such, we should expect, and be prepared for the day when our beloved pet either goes of its own accord or has to be humanely euthanized.  We also need to understand that loving a pet means its welfare comes before the gratification we receive from spoiling it.  We live in a time when there is an abundance of pet foods that are formulated to fulfill all of the nutritional needs of our pets.  Most of these pet foods come with a comprehensive feeding guide that allows us to zero in on an ideal weight for our dog or cat.  While the quality of ingredients and an individual animal's preference for a particular food may vary, once you find a pet food that works for your budget and your pet's preferences, it is a very simple matter to only feed only as much of it as is required.

Regarding the legal shift of animals going from chattel to individuals with rights, there are volumes devoted to the pros and cons of that argument.  For this post, sufficeth to say that if our goal is to increase the overall welfare of animals in our society, it is my belief that meeting that goal will be much more economically feasible if animals are defined as property under the law.  Whether that is moral or not, whether it is socially acceptable or not, I will leave for another day.  However, I will conclude by predicting that defining animals as members of society with rights will invariably raise the cost of owning and caring for them to the point where only the very wealthy and/or eccentric will be able to afford legitimate care.  It may be that we come full circle and return to a time when the relationship between most humans and their dogs and cats will be reduced to infrequent encounters with strays that somehow fell through the cracks, but for whatever reason cannot fully enter our lives.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Few Good Vets

Today was the first day off I've had in over 2 months.  The first day that I haven't either had appointments scheduled or been on call since September.  Sundays don't count since I spend a good chunk of those days working on ecclesiastical duties.

It's always hard to know what to do on a day off when you've been going mach chicken for weeks on end.  Even though it was a day off, I still had to attend to some church stuff first thing in the morning, but after that I found myself nervously fidgeting and looking for something to do.  I was actually supposed to be working today but we've had a real cold snap this week and nobody really wants to preg check when it's 30 below outside.  In fact the cold has slowed things down at the clinic in general, leaving us all with time on our hands. Time to reflect.  Several months worth of problems, inconsistencies, impressions and insights have been floating around in the ether and now the atmosphere is supersaturated.  Conditions are right for condensation.

After making token contributions to varying projects, by the end of the day all I really wanted to do was watch a movie.  My wife and I are house sitting for a couple while they are away for a year, and they happen to have a large collection of movies.  One of these is 'A Few Good Men' starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.  I hadn't seen it in a long time, and my wife had never seen it, so we fired up the old VHS and did our best to get a handle on the truth.

For those of you reading this who haven't seen it, I will summarize the basic premise of the movie, though I warn you there may be a spoiler or two to follow.  Tom Cruise portrays Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a young, talented navy lawyer who has a flair for plea bargaining.  Through a series of events, he is assigned to be lead counsel for a couple of marines who are on trial for murdering a fellow marine.  The victim in question died soon after being bound and gagged by the defendants as part of a disciplinary ritual known in the marine corp as a 'Code Red'.  The marines on trial claim that they carried out the Code Red as a result of a direct order from their superior officer(s).  The superior officers claim that the marines acted on their own with intent to kill.  The plot line clearly shows that the superior officers are lying as part of a cover up to spare the commanding officer of the base, Colonel Jessop, played by Jack Nicholson, a career ending blemish on his record.  Jessop uses his high up connections to get the Judge Advocate General to assign Kaffee to the case, knowing that he will go for a plea bargain that will minimize jail time for the marines, avoid the publicity of a trial, and ultimately spare Jessop from any connection to the death.  Kaffee, who has never seen the inside of a courtroom thanks to his prodigious ability to negotiate ridiculous plea bargains, knows that the marines are innocent, knows that Jessop is lying, but also knows that his clients stand no chance if the case goes to trial.  He uses his mad skills to negotiate a plea bargain that will see his clients home in 6 months, after a dishonorable discharge of course.  However, to his chagrin, his clients refuse the plea bargain.  They are marines, they've got honor, they've got code, and they followed their orders.

What follows next is an edge of your seat series of courtroom events, where the defense mounts a courageous attempt to prove to the jury with no evidence and little more than conspiracy theories, that the marines in fact followed orders and that the death of the victim was a direct result of Jessop's poor judgement.  Their luck goes from bad to worse as every possible avenue is exhausted, until finally, Daniel Kaffee has only one alternative if he is to succeed: place Jessop on the stand and use his skill as a trial lawyer to induce this proud Colonel to confess.  Oh, but wait, there's a catch.  If Kaffee accuses a ranking officer of a felony without sufficient evidence, he faces the possibility of court martial and disbarment.  Futhermore, if he fails his clients will spend the rest of their lives in Forth Leavenworth.  The only evidence he has will be the Colonel's confession.  Pretty serious stuff.

Those of you who have seen the movie already knows what happens.  Those of you who don't know are about to find out. Amidst cries of 'I want the truth!!!!' and 'Did you order a code red?!!!!' Kaffee extracts a confession from a very bellicose Jessop and the Marines are exhonerated of all charges except one; conduct unbecoming a marine.  The penalty for which is dishonorable discharge and time already served.  So in essence, after risking his career, his reputation, and the lives of his clients to overcome insurmountable odds, Daniel Kaffee has bought his clients 6 extra months of freedom but no change in their status as marines.

So here I sit, with months worth of vaporized meaning floating above my head, asking myself the question, "Was it worth it Kaffee?"  When a hit by car dog comes into the clinic after hours in respiratory distress, and I know that his only chance of survival is a surgery that I have never performed, do I trust in my surgical instincts and try it anyways?  Even though I know that he probably won't survive the anesthetic and I could be exposing myself, my family, and the practice to the consequences of a malpractice hearing?  Do I punt it on up to the referral surgeon?  Even if I know the dog probably won't survive the drive up there?  Do I just throw in the towel and euthanize?  Protocol dictates that I inform the owners of their options and let them decide, let it rest on their shoulders.  But are they really capable of making that decision?  Are they capable of advocating for their animal in that moment?  Where does honor come in?  What about code?  Am I truly acting as the ultimate advocate for the animal?  Is that even my responsibility?

I don't have answers to these questions, and I don't think I need to have the answers right now.  But I do need to ask the questions.  I have had my moments of glory in success and defeat, when all options come down to either kill or cure and that's it.  I'm the man.  Referral isn't an option.  Either I save this animal or I don't and I'll live with the consequences either way.  But what about when referral is an option?  Kaffee could have petitioned the court that his clients be assigned to a different lawyer, but he didn't.  Why didn't he?  He could have washed his hands of the whole matter and walked away; far, far away from the responsibility and risk associated with putting your neck on the line for somebody or something, even if it's an ideal.  Thanks to the magic of screenwriting, Lt. Daniel Kaffee emerged from his foray victorious, but in real life there is a very real chance of failure.  What then?  Even if he is victorious, his clients' situation isn't that much improved.  They still get dishonorably discharged.  The only thing that brings any kind of sense to it all is knowing that they can hold their heads high.  Knowing that, as Lt. Kaffee eloquently put it, 'you don't need a patch on your shoulder to have honor'.

You don't need to have letters behind your name to have honor either; though those of us who do have acronyms should strive to embody such principles as honor and code.  There is a need in this world for people who are willing to make that choice, to risk it all for the sake of the truth.  This is not an excuse for recklessness, and when you are dealing with serious issues, you definitely need to know your limitations and know when to refer.  However, I hope I can find myself counted among those few brave souls who put their faith in the power of truth, who honestly believe that right will prevail if we are willing to sacrifice for it.  I hope that in the future, when I am faced with a difficult decision between honor and dishonor, that I will choose the better part.  That I will choose honor, even if the results of a successful outcome are marginal at best.  In the meanwhile, I think it's time to get busy again.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Little Fluter Boy

I just came back from a Christmas musical presentation at our local church; it was wonderful.  I really do enjoy good Christmas music.  Whether it be George Strait singing Away in a Manger, Karen Carpenter singing No Place like Home for the Holidays, Johny Mathis singing Sleigh Ride, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing O Holy Night, it always brings back happy memories and really puts me in a Christmassy mood.

However, there is one Christmas Song that I have never liked; in fact I despise it.  Most of you know it.  It usually starts out with a children's choir singing very solemn tones of "pum, pa-pa-pa-pum, pa-pa-pa-pum, pa-pa-pa-pum-pum . . ." to the steady beat of a marching drum, followed by a very over the top musical narrative of a little shepherd boy who doesn't have any thing to give the new born king . . . but he has a drum! . . . .


That's right, I do not like 'The Little Drummer Boy', not at all.  Never have.  First of all, why a drum?  I mean, why would a poor little shepherd boy have a drum in the first place?  Wouldn't it scare the sheep?  As a mixed animal veterinarian, I have several clients with sheep, and none of them tote their drums around with them while their out checking the flocks.  To be fair, I guess the song never actually says that he was a shepherd boy, but what other kind of boys were there in Bethlehem at the time?  Other than innkeepers son's?  I guess he could have been an innkeeper's son . . . maybe he played a drum for the lounge singers?  But then he probably wouldn't be poor, because innkeeping was apparently pretty profitable in Bethlehem at the time.  I don't know.  I just never have liked it.  I don't like the overly serious tone of the music, the fact that a drummer needs an ox and a lamb to keep time, and the incessant ra-pa-pum-pums scattered hither and yon throughout the lyrics.  I especially don't like how it gets into your head.  There are few things more annoying than having a song stuck in your head that you don't like in the first place.

Nonetheless, because 'tis the season to be jolly, I have come up with a few improvements for the song that might make it a little more historically correct and entertaining to listen to.  First of all, we've got to get rid of the drum.  Shepherds were more likely to have flutes!  So we call it 'The Little Fluter Boy'.  Because we need some lyrics that rhyme with 'flute', I suggest that instead of 'Pa-ra-pa-pum-pum' we should sing 'A-root-a-toot-toot!'.  That way, when you find yourself inadvertently ra-pa-pumping you can just say 'root-a-toot-toot!' and kablewy!  No more stupid little drummer boy in your head.  Add a few minor modifications to make everything jive together and I present to you, "The Little Fluter Boy"!

(Children's Choir singing in the Background)

Root! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot!

Coooooommmmme they told me
A new born king to see

Our finest gifts we bring
To lay before the King

So to honor him
with our loot!

Little baby
I am a poor boy too

I have no gift to bring
That's fit to give our King
A-root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot!

Shaaaaalllll I play for you?
On my flute!

Mary nodded
The ox and lamb felt fine
I played my flute for Him
I played my best for Him
A-root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot!

Then He smiled at me
Me'n my flute!

(Children's Choir singing, slowly fades into the Background)

Root! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Beef Cattle Handling Techniques and Facilities


I have spent hours working on this article.  I've agonized over it, revised it, rewritten it, and I have had several close friends read it.  I feel that this topic is a very important one that deserves our full attention (by 'our' I am referring to myself and other animal health professionals).  My hope is that this article will give those who work with cattle some useful information, and those who don't but would like to some valuable insight.

One of the many things I enjoy about my profession is the opportunity to visit different ranches.  In fact I get to visit LOTS of different ranches, each one with its own way of moving and handling cattle.  To be sure, I don't think I have ever seen two ranches that do things exactly the same way.  Each one has its own unique blend of techniques and facilities to get the job done, though they usually all share a few commonalities.  For instance, I remember going to a ranch just outside of town to do some pregnancy checks, and the rancher's daughter had brought some of her high school friends out to help.  Some of these girls had never been around cattle before, so in an effort to distill things down to an easy to understand level the rancher's daughter handed one of the girls an electric cattle prod and said, "here, when my dad starts yelling at you press the button and touch the cows with the end . . ."  I couldn't help but laugh because she had very succinctly described how it was done on far too many cattle operations; lots of yelling, lots of confusion, lots of electricity, and lots of stress for both man and beast.  There are, however, a few practices and designs that tend to get the job done with less stress on the cattle and fewer headaches for the handlers.  However, in order to understand these practices and designs, it is first necessary to understand a few basic principles about cattle.

Natural Cattle Behavior:

First and foremost, cattle are a prey species that live in herds.  In order to understand cattle behavior, it is important to understand these two basic facts, because they dictate how cattle process the world around them.  Most of the behaviors that frustrate the would be stock handler stem from an inadequate understanding of how cattle think.  Cattle have not been blessed with many of the defenses that come standard on other animals, but they use the ones they do have quite effectively.  For instance, cattle only have a lower set of incisors so biting their predators isn't really an option.  Instead they gore, bludgeon, and blow snot with their massive heads that sometimes have horns.  Cattle are designed to thrive on poor quality forages grown in rough terrain; a key component of this design is a rumen that can hold upwards of 50 gallons of material supported by short, muscular, cloven-hooved limbs.  The trade off to this design is a greatly decreased lung capacity and an awkward loping run that makes flight only a slightly more desirable option to fight.  Their stout figure also makes cattle pretty easy to spot out in the open; they aren't as stealthy as other herbivores like deer or elk.  However, their short muscular legs do give them the ability to kick a perceived attacker into next week, and they certainly have a personality for confrontation.  Their immune system has an unmatched capacity for fighting off infection, so they can take a pretty good licking from a predator, deliver a crushing response, and have at least a fair chance of survival.  All of these factors have created an animal that can be stubborn, belligerent, and aggressive if needs be, especially when protecting their offspring.

Being a prey species, their eyes are set on the sides of their head giving them nearly a 360 degree field of vision when their heads are lowered to graze.  The trade-off here, however, is a decreased ability to perceive depth and distances, and a blind spot directly in front of their faces and behind their tail.  These blind spots will often cause cattle to balk at openings that are directly in front of them, and are also part of the reason why cattle tend not to run directly away from a threat but rather circle around it.  Another reason for the circling pattern is that cattle find strength in numbers, and when separated from the main group they will attempt to double back at the first opportunity to run back to the herd.  Cows see colors very differently from humans.  They have a much higher percentage of rod receptors in their retinas than cone receptors, making them more sensitive to shades of black and white.  They also have a reflective membrane in their retinas called the tapetum lucidum, which coupled with their higher number of rod receptors gives them much better night vision than humans.  Being herd animals, they have a well established social order and a group of cows will generally have a 'boss cow' in the middle directing traffic.  They also tend to group together when pressured, which is nice if you are trying to gather them together out on the prairie, but can make sorting individuals away from the herd challenging.  Cattle have highly sensitive hearing and skin sensation, so much so that they can hear the sound of a twig breaking a mile away, and can pinpoint the location of a gnat on their back with their tail.  Their tails can be vicious towards larger pests as well, especially when soaked with manure and urine.

Despite assertions by many cattle owners to the contrary, cattle are actually very intelligent and have a keen memory.  If they go through the chutes and get poked, prodded, and yelled at, they will surely resist going through the chutes on every subsequent attempt.  To their credit, they are not very vindictive, though again I am sure there are many cattle owners who would disagree with me on that as well.  I say they are not vindictive, because I don't think cows remember a fearful or painful experience and then behave in such a way so as to repay the fear and pain.  More likely, I think, they remember fearful and painful experiences then behave in such a way so as to prevent them from happening again.  I think it is important to make this distinction, because too many times cattle handlers take things personal when cattle get on the fight, or stubbornly refuse to move, or swat them in the face with a manure sodden tail, or wreck fences/alley ways/corrals etc.   To be sure, there are innumerable ways that cattle can turn even the most mild mannered individuals into swearing, snarling maniacs.  I myself have been guilty of this type of behavior many times, and I have to constantly remind myself not to take it personal, they're just cows being cows.  If a handler takes the time to understand them on their level, then he or she can begin to create a system that is less stressful for the cows and ultimately for the handler.

Natural Human Behavior:

Even though many may grasp these basic concepts academically, when it comes to moving cows it seems like the standard instinct for most people is to get behind the cattle and 'drive' them.  This often involves lots of yelling, hand waving, and in more extreme cases, flailing, swearing, whipping, and prodding.  Certainly you can get cows to move this way, and often it may seem like the only way they will move at all, but in many ways these driving techniques tend to make life harder down the line.  The end result of these techniques is a cow that is stressed and agitated.  Once a cow becomes stressed she will not respond well to any cues.

One of the first things you can do to alleviate this stress is to lower your voice.  There are few things that will raise a cows stress hormones as quickly or as rapidly as the sound of the human voice, especially at a yell.  A cow's world is one of bucolic scenes where sounds are limited to the wind running through the grass along the babbling brook; punctuated only by the occasional lowing of an old momma cow, the bawl of a hungry calf, or the beller of a rutting bull.  Recall as well, that their hearing is actually quite sensitive.  The sound of a human voice grates on their nerves much like the sound of incessantly bawling calves grates on ours.  Even in situations where the cows world is limited to a pen or feedlot, the sound of the human voice is not the norm.  This is one of the hardest things for people to understand about cattle.  After all, what fun is working with cattle if you can't swing your arms in the air and yell "HEE-YAWWW!!!" every so often?  Isn't that how John Wayne did it?  Actually, that is how John Wayne did it, and lots of real cowboys even do it, but that doesn't make it okay.  The human voice stresses cattle out and should be kept to a minimum.

Placing yourself directly behind a cow can also be counterproductive because it makes her want to turn and look at you; because she can't see you in her blind spot.  This response is exacerbated when you separate a cow from the main group; not only does she want to turn and watch you, but she doesn't like the fact that you are between her and the rest of the cows.  You may be able to keep her from breaking back with a sufficient number of people and/or whacks to the face with a sorting stick.  However, even if you are successful in the short term with these methods, you will more than likely have escalated the cows disposition from one of quiet avoidance towards one of aggressive confrontation.


A better solution to driving cows, is to work cows from the front of the herd; slowly applying quiet pressure, then releasing it, with your body position and eyes on the cow that appears to be directing traffic on that end.  By alternating between applying pressure and releasing it on this cow, a cattle handler will induce a slow, linear movement of cows past him or her.  It is helpful when applying this pressure, to rock from side to side.  This technique is called the 'wiggle walk', and it works because it helps the cow know exactly how far away from her you are.  Recall that because the cow's eyes are set in the sides of their heads, they don't perceive depth as easily as we do.  Anything you can do to help them know where you are will put their bovine minds at ease.

As you continue to apply pressure and release it, and the herd begins to move together in the same direction, motion by the handler(s) in the opposite direction will coax the cows to move more earnestly in their original direction.  This method of working cattle from the front of the herd is sometimes referred to as 'working off the eye' of the cow.  If this procedure is performed against the side of a corral near an open gate, the ensuing procession of cattle will move willingly through the open gate with a minimum of stress and confrontation.  Sadly, I see very few handlers use this technique.  Instead the going trend is to get as many whooping and hollering humans as you can behind the cows and push them through the system.  Trying to push a herd of cows this way soon becomes like trying to push a rope.  You can push a short piece of rope, depending upon its stiffness, but if a rope has any length to it, you won't get it very far just from pushing.  Likewise, if you get behind a small group of cows (say 5-6), they will move away from you alright.  However, a larger group will bunch up, and the cows at the front of the herd will not feel your pressure until the cows at the back of the herd push on them.  This type of pressure often creates panic and disorganized movement.  In fact, one of my fellow veterinarians once witnessed a group of heifers trample and kill 4 of their herdmates during a similar panic in an alley way.

If you get the cattle at the front of the herd to lead the way, the motion becomes much more like a rope being pulled to its destination and chances are everyone involved will be a lot less frazzled.  All that being said, there are times when it is necessary to apply pressure from behind.  For instance, you may be able to initiate motion from the front of the cow, but the distance to their destination may be such that in order to continue their movement you need to follow behind for awhile.  If you have the cattle up against a fence, pushing from behind works best if you keep yourself slightly to the side where they can see you.  Out in the open this will not work as the cow will break back to the opposite side, so it then becomes necessary to stay directly behind to keep balanced pressure on both sides.  In this situation, it is still preferable to keep your voice low and you demeanor calm.

A major obstacle to developing skill with these techniques is that in order for them to work well, you have to invest some time into them.  A handler may try these techniques, but get frustrated when they don't work well initially and revert to old habits.  It is important to realize that getting the cattle to move well off of pressure on the front of the herd works best when the cattle have had some practice before hand.  The easiest way to do this is to move the cattle along one side of the fence using the same technique mentioned earlier, then reverse direction and do the same thing over again.  This helps the cattle to know that if they respond to your pressure by moving past you, the pressure will be removed.  It takes about 15 minutes, but I have found that doing this will pay dividends in decreased handling time down the road.  After teaching the cattle how to respond to pressure, you can create a lineup of handlers between the front of the herd and their intended destination, and they will move calmly and quietly past each one until they have passed through the gate or into the alley way that you desire.  This may not be practical when moving cattle across long distances, but it works well in large pens or when moving cattle through the corners of large pastures.

Cattle Handling Facilities:

Once the cattle have learned how to move correctly off of pressure in the open, they will move better through small enclosures as well.  However, once the cows have entered the corral or alley way, the onus for low stress handling shifts partially from the technique of the handlers to the design of the facilities.  This is only a partial shift, because good handling technique will make up for a mediocre facility.  However, if stressful handling techniques are employed, excellent facilities can only decrease the amount of time in which the cattle are stressed, but not eliminate the stress.   Facilities in and of themselves cannot lower the stress level of cattle if the handlers employ stressful techniques.  I have seen hundreds of different cattle handling facilities, and each one has been unique.  Even systems that use components from the same manufacturer tend to have their own individual efficacy as these components usually have to be integrated into a pre-existing system.  In my mind, cattle handling systems usually consist of 5 basic components: holding pens, loading pens, alley ways, sorting gates/in-line gates, and chutes/restraining devices.  I will discuss each of these components individually, and will attempt to focus on designs over brands as it is not my intention to promote one company over another.  However, I may mention some specific, well-known designs for illustrative purposes, and when it comes to squeeze chutes, all bets are off.

Holding Pens:

Holding pens are larger enclosures that usually accommodate anywhere from 20-30 animals on up to several hundred.  Holding pens are usually the first enclosure that cattle see when they are brought in from pasture, and can vary in design from square/rectangular to rounded.  The one thing holding pens must be able to do for sure is hold the animals.  The fences should be high enough and sturdy enough to keep cattle from jumping out.  The pen should also have decent footing, and should be large enough to accommodate a good proportion of the cattle that are going to be processed in a given day.  As some places may have multiple holding pens, what qualifies as a 'good proportion' may vary, however if you have to ride out and bring cattle in from the pasture more than once or twice for processing, it will make for a long day.  Holding pens should also be small enough that one or two handlers can bring small groups of cattle out of the holding pen into loading pens.  Sometimes holding pens will be used to sort cattle, especially when sorting calves off of their mothers.  Sometimes there will be a series of holding pens that go from large to small.  Whatever the case may be, the bottom line is holding pens need to keep the cattle in, and should be designed so that the flow of movement provides a steady stream of cattle into the processing facility.

Loading Pens:

A loading pen is essentially a small enclosure where a small group of cattle (say 5-10) are placed after being sorted and brought up from the holding pen(s).  Usually cattle go from a loading pen into an alley way, however this may not always be the case.  I have seen 3 basic types of loading pens: crowding tubs, bottle-necks, and Bud Boxes.  Crowding tubs are usually semi-circular or quarter-circular pens with a swing gate originating from the center of the circle; though I have seen tubs that almost encompass an entire circle.  They can be purchased as pre-manufactured units, or built from scratch.  One common design element that I have observed in virtually every crowding tub is that the swing gate has a mechanism that prevents the gate from coming back against pressure from cattle inside the tub.  The purpose of this feature is to allow the tub space to get smaller and smaller as cattle exit the tub into the alley way, and also to protect the handler(s) from cattle coming back out of the tub.  This swing gate essentially 'crowds' the remaining cattle into a position where they have no other alternative but to exit the tub.  The advantage of crowding tubs is they make entrance into the alley way inevitable for the cows; no matter how ornery or stubborn they may be, they eventually have to leave the tub, and usually they can be forced out if they are pointed in the right direction.  Another advantage to crowding tubs is safety for the handler; almost all crowding tubs are designed to work with the handler on the outside of the tub.  Crowding tubs are used almost exclusively for handling wild game type animals such as bison and elk, as attempting to get in a small pen with one of these animals will almost certainly lead to injury for the handler.  The downside to crowding tubs is that they don't always work off of the cows natural inclinations for movement.  To be sure, there are crowding tubs that have been designed to cater to the cows natural instincts for movement.  But I have seen a lot of tubs that only work well if there is someone on the outside poking and prodding the cows through it.  I would say the majority of cattle I deal with that are fed into the alley way out of a crowding tub are at least moderately stressed.

Most tubs that I have dealt with have high solid walls and a solid walled swing gate.  This is great for keeping the cattle from jumping out of the tub, but it has been my experience that cattle will move through a system better if they can see out; if they can know where the handler is in relation to themselves.  At the very least, the crowding gate in a tub should be see through, and if a portion of the outside radius of the tub can be see through it really helps.  One of my favorite crowding tub designs is the Morand quarter circle tub.  It's outside wall are solid for the about the first 5 feet up, then there is a gap followed by 3 bars across the top; the swing gates both leading into the tub and that crowd the cattle are see through, and the cattle tend to move in and out of them better than other solid walled tubs.  In truth, the Morand quarter circle tub is actually a hybrid between a crowding tub and a Bud Box, but before I go into the elements of a Bud Box I need to talk about bottle necks.

A bottle neck loading pen is essentially a small 4 sided pen where the cattle enter on one side and exit out the other.  The main feature of a bottle neck is that instead of a square enclosure the wall adjacent to the exit extends obtusely off of the sides of the pen.  Imagine a square house with simple peaked roof and a chimney slightly off center to the apex.  If the house were seen from the side in profile, then cut in half at the apex, the resulting shape would resemble a bottle neck pen.  When using a bottle neck pen, the handler stands on the side of the pen opposite the exit into the alley; the handler can either stand inside the pen with the cows, on the outside of the pen, or on a catwalk.  The handler applies pressure to the cows in the pen in such a manner so as to guide them into the bottle neck and then the alley.  The bottle neck pen should be wide enough at its entrance to allow the handler to apply pressure to the cattle at a safe distance, but narrow enough that the handler can stand in the cows flight zone.  If you have somebody that knows what their doing in a bottle neck pen, you can move cows into the alley very quickly and with a minimum amount of stress.  However they can be very frustrating for the uninitiated, or for those cattle handlers that have cut their teeth on forcing cattle through a crowding tub.

A Bud Box is kind of like a bottle neck loading pen, however it has an ingenious design that plays off of a cow's natural instinct to break back towards the herd.  The basic Bud Box has a long, wide alley way that comes off of the holding pens, with a narrow alley way exiting perpendicular to the wide alley way.  The wider alley way extends past the narrow alley a distance that is a little bit longer than the wider alley's width; this creates a sort of dead end that will fit a small group of cattle.  There is a swing gate that hinges off of a post at the entrance to the narrow alley way that swings out across the wider alley way so as to form a diagonal barrier.  When cattle are brought up the wide alley from the holding pens, they move past the entrance to the narrow alley, and the swing gate is brought back across the wide alley way behind them.  When they stop at the dead end and break back towards where they came from, they naturally want to move along the fence and will usually enter the narrow alley willingly.  In this instance, it is preferable for the swing gate to be solid, so that the cattle cannot see back to where they came from, but instead will think the narrow alley is the way to go.  I've made it sound more complicated than it really is, it is actually a very simple, very easy to use design, and you don't have to be an expert stock handler to get it to work.  The Bud Box is name in honor of a man name Bud Williams, who designed the box and who has had a vast influence on the field of Stockmanship.  Many of the ideas I present in this article were taught to me in continuing education courses by a veterinarian named Tom Noffsinger, who worked extensively with Bud Williams and is recognized as an expert in cattle handling.

I mentioned earlier that the Morand quarter circle crowding tub was actually a hybrid between a crowding tub and a Bud Box.  It is unique in that it actually has two swing gates, both hinging on either side of the entrance to the narrow alley.  The first swing gate blocks the return down the wider alley way, however instead of entering a box, the cows enter a quarter circle tub that has a radius equal to the length of the second swing gate.  Once the cattle are in the tub, they can be crowded up into the narrow alley way.  Because of the shape of the tub and the limited space, it doesn't work quite as well as a regular Bud Box, but for most cattle it works better than a standard crowding tub.  It actually works pretty well for handling wild horses as well, but that's a topic for another day.

Alley Ways:

Alley ways are actually very simple components, but there seems to be a lot of debate as to which designs work best.  Some argue that they should be strait, while others say they should be curved.  Some say they should have solid walls, and others say they should be see through.  Some prefer wood to metal, and vice versa.  Lots of alley ways have catwalks running alongside high walls; others have lower walls with overhead bars and arches to keep the cattle from jumping out.  I've seen alley ways of all different designs work well, however if I had to choose, I would say lower walled alleys that allow the cows to see where the handlers are tend to work best, especially if the cows are not stressed when they exit the loading pen.  In my experience, it doesn't really matter if they are straight or curved, wood or metal; if the sides of the wall are too high, the cattle will not be able to see what's going on and they will not move well.  If you need to put archways and bars over head to keep the cattle from jumping out, go right ahead, but they need to see where the handler is if he or she is going to move them off of the eye.

Sorting Gates/In-line Gates:

Sorting gates are a very important part of the cattle handling system that often gets overlooked.  A sorting gate can be something as simple as a swing gate that leads into a side pen, or it can be a component of a split alley that directs cows either right or left.  Some of the most effective sorting gates are in-line gates that stop movement of cattle in an alley, thereby allowing the cattle to be brought into the chute and then released individually.  Some of the older in-line gates on alleys resemble a guillotine.  They include a vertical track system and a pulley that allows the gate to be dropped into place at the appropriate time.  These guillotine gates work okay, but I have found that many cattle can nose their ways under them pretty effectively, and they are not always easy to use.  Other sorting gates have pieces that come in from the side to separate cows in an alley; these could be referred to as scissor gates or accordion gates.  These also can work okay, but there are lots of cows that will get their nose in between the the two halves of the gate and pry it open before the operator can stop them.  My personal favorite design when it comes to in-line gates is the roller gate.  This gate has a heavy door that rolls into the alley on an overhead track.  I can stop just about any cow I want to with a roller gate, even if she gets her head in between the edge of the roller gate and the alley wall.  The reason these gates are so effective is that the pressure of the roller gate redirects the cows momentum into the side of the alley with less kinetic energy being transferred to the edges of the gate than a scissor/accordion gate or guillotine gate.

There is one other type of sorting gate that bears mentioning.  This is a type of gate that has affectionately been dubbed, 'The Preg Box'.  It has been named thus because it is the component used most often by veterinarians to check cows for pregnancy via trans-rectal palpation.  A basic preg box has a door that opens into the alley way and blocks it off entirely.  Think of a Elmer Fudd running down a hallway then being stopped suddenly as Bugs Bunny opens a hidden door that flattens poor Elmer's Face.  That's pretty much how a preg box works.  I prefer to work in a system that has some other form of in-line gate behind the preg box, as I am not strong enough to keep a cow from pushing through the gate if she gets her nose between the edge of the door and the opposite alley wall.  Also, I don't necessarily like to have to flatten the face of every cow that attempts to come through the door while I am swinging it across the alley; though most cows will stop when they see me open the door.  Notwithstanding, I feel fortunate that most systems have a preg box at all, so I try not to complain if a system doesn't have an in-line gate right behind it.

Chutes and other Restraining Devices:

Now for the Piece de Resistance of a cattle handling system, the squeeze chute.  I refer to this section as Chutes and other Restraining Devices because not all systems I have worked in actually have what we might refer to as a 'squeeze chute'.  However most of them do, and if a rancher is going to boast about anything in his handling system, it will likely be about his squeeze chute.  I could write a book on all of the different squeeze chute designs.  The first squeezes were designed, as one seasoned vet I know eloquently put it, 'primarily to kill people'.  As squeeze chutes evolved, they became safer for the people using them, but not always for the cattle.  I know I said I didn't want to pick on or promote specific companies, but when it comes to killing cattle, I think the old Powder River scissor catch chutes have earned a place in the annals of history.  Not that Powder Rivers are alone in this category, any squeeze that doesn't have a straight edged head restraint can apply sufficient pressure on a cows carotid artery to stop all blood flow to the brain and result in death in 30 seconds or less.  A good squeeze chute should be able to catch a cows head, squeeze her up so that she can't move, allow access to the neck, lung field, flank, sheath, scrotum, back end, and feet, and prevent other cows from coming into the chute at the same time.  It should do these things with minimum stress and/or injury to the cow and the handler.  A good squeeze should also allow for multiple exit points.  For instance if a cow won't or can't go out of the front of the chute, at least one side of the chute should be able to open wide enough for her to make an exit.

There are lots of chutes out there that can get the job done, especially when you start throwing hydraulic rams into the mix.  In my mind, the Cadillac of squeeze chutes is the Silencer hydraulic chute.  They are quiet, powerful, and effective; they also cost a small fortune.  The average ranch cannot justify the expense of owning a Silencer, though I never complain when they decide to splurge on one.  Stampede Steel makes a pretty good hydraulic that is a little more cost effective than the Silencer, but is still quite an expense for an outfit that might only run cattle through 3 or 4 times a year.  If I had to pick a favorite manual squeeze chute, I would have to say the clear winner is the Morand.  Morands are built to last, and they work really well.  Cattle seem to go into a Morand better than many other chutes, and the rugged, simple design of a Morand seems to ensure that its components function like new over a period of several years.  I have several clients who have Morands that are at least 20 years old and still work very well.  You'll pay a little bit more for a Morand than some manual squeezes, but they tend to hold their value better than other chutes.  That being said, there are a host of other squeeze chutes that I have worked in that work well.  There is a company out of Manitoba that makes a big yellow chute called a 'Tuff' chute.  We have one of these at the clinic and it gets the job done, and is more affordable than a Morand.  Hi-Hogs, HiQuals, and Pearsons are very common in our area, and other than an occasional cable breakdown, they work fairly well.  Perhaps one of my favorite manual squeeze chutes is the red Thorson chute out of Corvallis, Montana.  The company closed its doors in the past decade, so you can't go out and buy a new Thorson.  But, if you get a chance to purchase a used Thorson don't pass it up, or if you do, let me know so I can buy it.

I mentioned earlier that not all systems I work in have a squeeze chute.  For a lot of the jobs I do, I really only need access to the cow's back end, and in this situation a simple box with a door on the front of it and slot for a back post will work just fine.  I have several clients with setups like this, and for artificially inseminating cows,  preg checking, and even semen testing bulls they work great.  One advantage these simple setups have is that since the cow's head is not caught, she is less prone to kneel down on her front legs, which usually makes my job a lot easier and is safer for everyone involved.  That being said, there is one feature that you can install in just about any chute that will prevent this from happening; that is a brisket bar.  A brisket bar is a device that extends up from the floor of the chute to a height level with an average cow's brisket.  It is usually a round bar that comes up at an angle from the middle of the chute and then ends abruptly at the front of the chute.  They can easily be welded into the floor of any metal chute, or better yet, slots and pin barrels can be welded into the floor that allow the brisket bar to be removed as needed.  Our Tuff chute at the clinic has a detachable brisket bar that can be removed even with a cows full weight is on it.  I find them to be a handy component to a good squeeze, and would not hesitate to install one in a chute that didn't have it as a standard feature.

Along with the main components of a cattle handling system, there are several accessories that make the job go a lot easier.  One of the most basic and vital is a good sorting stick.  A sorting stick can be made of anything.  Some of the more common sorting sticks are wooden canes, fiberglass rods, or plastic pipes.  I prefer to use a fiberglass rod with a good rubber grip and a white plastic bag taped to the end.  The white stands out to cattle much like blaze orange stands out to humans, and having it on the end of a stick allows me to put pressure on a cow over a much wider area than what I can do on just my feet.  I also feel that I can move the cows a lot better with the white plastic bag than say a rattling paddle or a whip.  The only problem with having a sorting stick, is that it creates the temptation to beat on the cows when they start to get ornery.  That's not to say you shouldn't be able to defend yourself against a mean cow, and a good whack to the face with a sorting stick has deterred many a would be aggressor.  However I have seen far too many cattle get stressed out because the only way their handlers know how to move them is by yelling and smacking them with sorting sticks.  So use sorting sticks, but use them judiciously.

There is one cattle handling accessory that many cattle handlers have developed an almost addictive dependence for: the electric cattle prod or 'hotshot'.  I have gone through a range of emotions and opinions regarding the hotshot.  When I was a 4th year veterinary student I purposefully zapped myself in the leg with a hotshot because I wanted to know what if felt like before I used it on a cow.  It really hurt!  If felt like a pitbull had bitten me on the quadriceps!  Since then I have gone back and forth on the ethics and practicality of the hotshot.  There are times when a cow goes down in an alley or chute and you have to either get her up with the hotshot or she dies.  There are other times when a cow is just going to plant her feet and make up her mind that she ain't movin'.  Your alternatives at that point are to wait her out (which may take several minutes), beat on her with a sorting stick, twist her tail to its breaking point, or zap her with the hotshot; and none of them will get the job done as quickly as the hotshot will.  I have come to the conclusion that it is more humane to zap her with the hotshot than to beat on her with a sorting stick or twist her tail.  It's true that it might be more humane to wait her out, but anyone who has worked cattle through a chute will tell you that you really don't have that much time to waste.  If you spend more than a 1, or maybe 2 minutes on each cow, you won't be able to get through them all in a day.  When you consider the amount of coordination and resource allocation that it takes for an average sized ranch to be able to work cows through the chutes, spending more than a day or two doing it becomes very impractical.  I will say this however, if you find yourself reaching for the hotshot more than once or twice in a day, that may be a sign that there is something about your cattle handling technique or system that is slowing you down.  A little time invested early on in teaching cattle how to move off of pressure will prevent most of these dilemmas, and many times some minor modifications can turn a poor system into a functional one.  Because we aren't perfect people, and we don't live in a perfect world, I think there needs to be a place for the hotshot.  However, if there is one thing I have learned in my career as a veterinarian, you never stop learning, and there is almost always a better way to do something than what you have been doing in the past.  The principles, techniques, and designs I have outlined in this article are by no means exhaustive.  They are based largely on my own observations and opinions, though much of what I have written is based on things I have learned from others. However, if you'll consider the fact that I help process more than 20,000 cattle every year in over 100 different cattle handling systems, then perhaps it will help you think about some ways that you might be able to do things a little better.  If that's all it accomplishes then it will have been worth the effort.