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City Slickers Learn Ranching Skills at 40th Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Visitors to the 40th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington [June 30-July 11] celebrated the music of New Orleans and of the Latino community in Chicago, attended demonstrations of basket weaving and learned about the culture and crafts from Alberta, Canada, from storytellers, oil miners and cowboys. This story takes us to the Alberta exhibition corral, a place where city slickers can pick up some essential ranching skills.

Dylan Biggs is no Hollywood cowboy. He says the movie version of ranchers on horseback roping frenzied cattle is not his style.

"I am able to get the cattle to do what I want them to do without the use of force and fear, just by virtue of my position, my movement and my motion. It is a matter of being in the right place, at the right time in the right manner. And ultimately you have to take all that direction from the cattle."

Biggs practices what he calls low-stress livestock handling. He says it is simply good stockmanship.

"Instead of having to run around chasing cattle, I can very calmly ask the cattle to get up, start walking exactly where I want them to go and they actually get there," he said. "So, it takes a lot less effort on my part."

Biggs demonstrates with a few gentle cows trucked in from a farm in nearby rural Maryland. The cows seem unfazed by the tourists in the bleachers or by Biggs who walks determinedly among them.

"I want to teach them to start, speed up, slow down, turn left, turn right and stop, just by virtue of my movement and my position," he said.

No need to prod or whip. Biggs says cows are not stupid animals.

"Cattle learn very quickly," he said. "In anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, you can have a herd of 150 cattle …softened up and [you can] put them where you want them without any fuss."

Calm cows walk with heads down below their shoulders like they are trailing in for a drink of water. Biggs says keeping them that way is good for the cattle and good for the pocketbook.

"Happy, healthier contented animals are healthier animals," he said. "They gain better. They have less sickness, less disease. Their immune system is healthier. It saves me medicines. It saves me on death loss. It saves me on bruising. It saves me on fences [and] broken corrals."

Biggs says low-stress handling is gaining attention as more consumers make choices based on how cattle are raised. His humane approach engaged tourists unaccustomed to seeing cows downtown.

"You can see the intelligence in the animals come out," said Amy Skilman from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

John Ritzman from Alexandria, Virginia says the demonstration changed his idea of a cattle drive.

"I usually thought that moving them around was something that meant you had to resort to violence or roping or what you see in the cowboy movies," he said. "These were very interesting techniques for getting cows to do things they want to do."

Biggs says his methods are similar to what old-time cowboys did on the range before the rise of large factory farms. Biggs uses his skill back on his family ranch in Alberta, Canada, but he also conducts private workshops in low-stress livestock management all across Canada and the United States.