“I can’t believe it” – Gauchos in Uruguay Learn Low Stress Cattle Handling Principles

          The person I learned from had his own way with cattle, right or wrong it was all he knew, and became all I knew. Pete believed that the only way handle cattle was to yell at them and hit them with a stick. He learned what he knew from someone, as I learned from him in an endless feed back loop. I sometimes wondered if there wasn’t a better way, but without some reference point to guide the way, I always fell back on what I did knew.

          Years later I did find a better way, but I remember how hard letting go of my belief system was, and the bad habits that went along with it. I remember how I defended my beliefs. Right or wrong, at least now I  understand how to reevaluate what I think I know is true.  In the best selling book, “The Believing Brain” (Macmillan),  a psychologist named Michael Shermer upends the traditional thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world. His thesis is straightforward and compelling:

          We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first explanations for beliefs follow.

          This book made perfect sense to me and explained why religious and political beliefs are so rigid and polarized—or why the other side is always wrong, but somehow doesn’t see it. Shermer made a point in the book about how so few of us can openly reevaluate our beliefs and change them when we find them to be wrong. I encountered this on a trip I made to Uruguay in 2017. 


Uruguay is a cattleman’s paradise. Except for the biting flies, the tics, and thorns on every tree that tear your clothes to sheds, the climate is perfect for cattle. There are four times as many cattle than people in Uruguay. Cattle country like no other. As a facility designer, I also consulted with clients on animal handling and behavior, animal welfare, and developing animal welfare auditing programs. I surveyed wild horse welfare during capture and management for the BLM. I conducted welfare auditing for a large scale hog slaughter operation in Germany. I helped develop a cattle welfare auditing program for a grocery chain in Portugal, and I did extensive work on cattle welfare in Mexico. In all these places, the  people’s reluctance to change stood out more than anything else. I saw the same mistakes being made over and over. Cattle were hit, poked jabbed with sharp sticks, crowded so tight that injuries from horns were common, and worse. It was hard to understand how such animal abuse could be seen as anything than what it was, then I remembered how beliefs were formed and I understood, and it changed the way I worked.

          My focus in these corporate operations changed from trying to educate everyone to singling out one or two people who can make change and whom I thought were the most open to experience. In them I hoped to see change happen. But, even when I  made it perfectly clear how low stress handling improves productivity and increases profits, some people can’t get, don’t get it, or don’t want to get it. The job in Uruguay involved visiting a large ranch with farming and cattle infrastructure. The owners were European and hired a manager to oversee their wishes to see good animal welfare was practiced on the ranch. My job was to visit all the cattle facilities and watch the Gauchos perform their chores, make recommendations as needed and report to the owners at the end of the week. Cattle in Uruguay are mostly European Continental breeds, and  require the same care as in the U.S. with one exception, cattle are frequently treated for tics in a dip vat. It’s a long narrow tank filled with pesticides and cattle are made to swim through it three or four times per year. Cattle are also sprayed, get treated with pour on pesticides, and oral larvicides. In that part of the world, it’s a constant battle staying ahead of the resistant strains of tics and biting flies endemic to the region

          The flight was non stop from Denver to Buenos Aires where I crossed the river into Uruguay. A driver picked me up and drove 4 hours north to the ranch in Paysandu’. I met the Gauchos late in the afternoon. I arrived in time to watch them sort a final group of cattle. They were preparing the cattle for a handling demonstration planned for the next day. I didn’t talk to them that afternoon, but I did get a chance to watch them work.

          The Gauchos of South America have a long tradition of independence, and a reputation for being experts with cattle. Their clothes included a chiripa girdling the waist. It’s a rectangular cloth tucked in at the belt used for cold nights. They also used their chiripa to swing overhead at the cattle to get them moving. They had colorful woolen ponchos, and long, pleated trousers, called bombachas, gathered at the ankles, and high leather boots. They looked like the landscape, rugged and wild.

The corrals were a mixed match of wooden fences in need of repair. The facility was made up of a large gathering pen attached to a big egg, a small egg, and a tube. My translator Juan was kind enough to translate the meaning; a large crowd pen, a small crowd pen, and the tube was a single file chute leading to the crush (squeeze chute). I could see the cattle, about 700 lbs, crowded to overflowing in the big egg as one gaucho standing in the middle tried to get them moving. The cattle were clearly agitated, milling about in a near frenzy, when all the sudden we heard a loud slapping sound and the Gaucho in the center doubled over. A heifer had kicked him right where it’s impolite to mention. He tried to hide the fact that it was a bullseye, but everyone knew and simultaneously showed their anguish. Not a good start to my visit.

          Later, I saw the looks I got and the way my introduction felt uncomfortable for everyone. I struggled that night to decide how to approach the Gauchos, but by morning it came to me; I needed to show by example. No talk-just action. They had about 200 cattle gathered and held in the gathering pen. Some were coming in for pink eye treatments, others vaccinations, wormers, and some were planning a swim through the dip vat. When I asked where they had the most problems, they pointed to the eggs and the tube. Cattle did not want to go in. So I told them to get ready at the squeeze chute and I would bring up the first group of cattle myself.

          Juan said it took all the Gauchos at once chasing and yelling and swinging their chiripas to get the cattle in the egg, so they must have thought I was crazy or stupid when I said I’d do it myself. But, I came prepared with a small plastic bag I picked up at the convenience store the night before. With my pocket knife, I cut a long thin stick from one of the thorny trees and tied the bag on the end of the stick. When I was ready, I walked out and quietly split the herd and moved about 25 to the big egg. I was carrying the stick with the bag held low and shaking it slightly when any animal slowed down from a walk. Easily, the first group went into the large egg and let me shut the gate. Once there, I crossed the pen slowly and opened the gate to the small egg. Using flight zone principles and only showing the stick and flag when necessary, I slowly circled and the cattle eased around as they moved into the small egg. The gate to the tube was already open so I held back after closing the gate and moved toward the group. One animal was clearly more attentive to me so I focused on her and eased her toward the tube. Just as planned, she went in and took about three others with her. It was a simple matter from there on using following behavior and only encouraging when necessary. After the cattle were in the tube, I closed the gate and turned to go back to get another group, when Juan stopped me. He said the Gauchos wanted to do it themselves. Since my help was not wanted, I decided to video. Watch the Gauchos yourself in their first attempt at low stress handling. Note the wooden squeeze chute at the end.

Watch the Video

          Juan said to me; “ I can’t believe it !” I agreed, but wondered what motivated the change. Was it shame? Were the Gauchos ashamed because I so easily did what they said was so hard? Did they really see the benefit that quickly, and just as quickly…change? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that as the day wore on they got better and better. For the next couple days,  we went over every procedure from gathering cattle from the heavy brush to giving shots. We made plans for what facilities needed fixing, and worked out the details of monitoring handling something’s didn’t revert back to the old way. Later that day we met with the owners who were pleasantly surprised by the positive attitude of the Gauchos and encouraged them to make the necessary facility changes at the ranch.

          On the flight home, I wondered if they’d go back to doing things the old ways. I can’t imagine anyone consciously choosing to work harder than necessary, and risking injury on a day to day basis. All the same, I still chuckle at the name Juan gave the Gauchos. He called them “Gaucho Gentile”- Gentle Cowboys.