There are many things I have learned over the years about what makes a good pen checker in the feedlot. In my opinion, one of the most important is learning about the flight zones of cattle. Earlier in my career, I believed it was something you either understood or didn’t. There was no middle ground or actual way to learn it. I considered myself good at this part of the job and at times noticed others were not.
Some pen checkers and barn staff just couldn’t seem to figure it out, or maybe they just didn’t care enough to even think about it. They would ride or walk into a group of cattle attempting to make a sort, and generally cause chaos of varying degrees, usually ending with an out-of-control mini stampede or catching a stray hoof somewhere they weren’t expecting it. At the time it was both frustrating and funny.
The hard part is that every pen of animals is different. Just like I suppose, every animal species would be different. How would you handle a pen of deer, or a flock of chickens or a forest of slow-moving sloths? What about a herd of cats? It’s the same problem with cattle. There are so many differences.
Some pens of calves are just naturally wilder than others and take a special kind of treatment when you are moving through them. There are so many things to consider. Does the animal you are approaching see or hear you? Are they surrounded by unease? When you reach the edge of their flight zone, do they bolt up and over their friend and neighbour just to continue chewing their cud 10 feet further away, or do they race into the corner of the pen to hide behind everyone else? In the past, I believed to be a good pen checker, you should just know these things.
In one instance, during the monotony of riding in a semi-automatic state, I had a thought about how livestock flight zones could be related to those of people. When we are pressured to a certain degree, it’s in our nature to react. And just like cattle, there are always a number of factors. Maybe it’s our personalities? Maybe it’s our backgrounds and previous experiences which have tended to shape our responses. Are we the type that can withstand a large amount of pressure to the edges of our comfort zones until we explode and bolt away, scrambling over our friends, coworkers and neighbours, wildly searching for buses to toss everyone under? Maybe we stand and lash out with our so-called hooves at others when they get too close, or race away to hide.
Thinking changed with age
As I grew older and became more experienced as a pen checker, my thinking on this subject began to change. It’s certainly important to understand how to manipulate the varied flight zones of cattle. We need to be able to adapt. I like to think that over time, as I accepted this could at least be a partially learned skill, I became a better pen checker. In a strange way, I was giving myself permission to continue building knowledge. Just like in people, things change with age and experience. The way I handled tough situations or outside pressures of life as a teenager are not usually the way I do now. It is important to learn how to deal with the stresses encroaching on our personal space and lives without running over, hiding behind, or tossing our friends under buses.
I eventually changed my earlier premise and came to my own decision that just like learning the do’s and don’ts of handling livestock as it pertains to flight zones through age and experience, one can become a better person as well by the way we respond to events in our life. But then again, this is only my interpretation and what do I really know? Riding around in pens of cattle looking for sickness and other problems certainly doesn’t make me an expert in anything. But some days, pen checking delivers numerous empty hours of riding filling the mind with all kinds of things — like flight zones.
Maybe it’s something to think about anyway? Or not.