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Herd Behavior and Moving Large Bunches of Cattle

             The first thing we need to learn in order to handle cattle in a less stressful way is how cattle act in a herd. Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest things to comprehend because most of us have never seen cattle acting as a herd. This is because we create so much stress in moving our cattle from pasture to pasture that we basically blow the herd instinct out of them. We try to do things which we conceive make them easier to move which actually causes a great deal of stress. The very meaning of the word “herd” is a group of animals which remain together, which is what we never see. Fortunately, they still do some things on their own which we can observe to show us the error of our ways. Cattle will folllow each other with little effort as long as we start them in the right way, as demonstrated in the following video. These cattle had come in fresh two weeks before this video was taken. They had never been through this gate, or into this pasture before, and the dog "helping" me was just starting out, and deaf on top of it. Even though she makes several mistakes, the steers not only go through the gate, but don't scatter after going through.

 

       

          Most of us want our cattle all going together in a bunch and drive them from behind. When cattle are scattered in a pasture, we can create we motion by traveling back and forth in a straight line across the back of the pasture. However, that is only to start them not to drive them the whole move. You will notice in most cases, that moving cattle in this manner if you are going up a steep hill (or getting closer to the pens, or going through a gate) the cattle wind up bunching up and slowing down. This is because they don’t like to be pushed into a crowd anymore than you do and cattle need to have a leader. Fifteen or twenty animals across the front of three hundred steers is not a lead. Even if you happen to think it is, those steers will not remain there for long when you are creating your motion from the back. When creating motion in this manner you get what I refer to as “tank track” milling. I have watched cattle being moved in this manner change the “lead” six times in less than a quarter mile. Rather than going through the gate on their own, the “herd” stops and people will do a “controlled mill” by creating motion on one side and moving it to the front and (hopefully) through the gate.

          There are different analogies to describe this situation. The first one that comes to mind is pushing our trailer instead of pulling it.  Wouldn’t it be hard for us to see where we are going? Yet that is what we are asking our cattle to do. Go forward blindly and hopefully push the front cattle with them enough to have a place to go.

          Another analogy would be going somewhere in heavy traffic. Imagine going to the Stockshow in Denver. If you are going early in the morning before rush hour traffic hits you have plenty of room on the road and truck along at 70 mph with no stress. What happens in as rush hour gets closer? You may still be doing 70mph, but you are now in bumper to bumper traffic and can’t see the brake lights of the second vehicle in front of you. You may get to the Stockshow in the same amount of time, but how are you feeling? Pretty stressed out, no?

         What makes you think that your cattle can get crowded in like that without stressing out?

          It is even worse if you are moving pairs. Imagine being in a strange city. Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, just take your pick.  You have no idea of how to get where you need to go, but you have a friend you are going to follow. Now imagine it is rush hour, bumper to bumper, 70 mph  and you loose track of your friend and have way to call him to let him know where you are (and that idiot behind you keeps honking his horn.) How much stress are you under now? Bet you would be under enough stress you would be tempted to just turn around and go back to the ranch!

          Now that you have an idea of why your cattle are stressed and don’t hang around together like a herd should, you can learn how do handle them to make them a herd. The biggest mistake people make in this is expecting it to work like magic in only one move. It takes time, and the less you move your cattle the longer it will take.  The more often you move  your cattle the faster they will begin to act as a herd.
     The steers in this picture were moved three times before they began grazing together like in this picture. They were purchased at a sale barn from several different owners and had no idea they were supposed to be a herd until they had been handled in a manner that allowed them to feel as a herd. Notice how all of them are facing the same direction while grazing?  When the herd changes where it is grazing (or decides to go to water), the lead steer will begin walking. After he leaves, the rest will follow, but string out in single file to do so.   When he stops to graze, the rest will begin stopping when they reach him. When you begin moving cattle so that they act as a herd, you will discover that each group of cattle will have its own lead animal. The other thing you will begin to notice is that nearly always, the same group of animals will be bringing up the drag. This is because each herd will establish its own “pecking” order.

          You have spent years teaching your cattle to not be a herd. If you are running a stocker operation, your calves have probably come from several different herds and don’t realize they are supposed to be a herd. This means you have to reverse your actions and teach them to be a herd.   Just as in teaching any person or animal this takes time and repetition. There will be signs showing if you are headed in the right direction or not with every move. The biggest  and most immediate sign will be how your cattle act when  they  go into a new pasture. Rather than fanning out in all directions to graze they will, at least for a short amount of time, remain together, grazing in the same direction.  Each time you move them correctly, they will remain together for a little longer amount of time.  Eventually they will stay together as a herd, like in the above picture.
    You need to be aware of the fact that if you push them from the back, even for a short amount of distance, you will undo everything you have accomplished. Just as it takes longer to undo what a bad rider instills in a horse, it will take several moves to undo what one bad move has taken away from the herd instinct of you cattle.

          The whole secret to letting (not forcing) your cattle act as a herd is to use cattle instinct to your advantage rather than against you. If you get your motion going and keep it going from the back, you are working against yourself and not keeping the cattle as stress free as possible. Think about it for a second. Most of the time you are moving your cattle to fresh feed, so why should that be stressful to them? It should not, in fact your cattle (if they are being handled in a way they are relaxed in) should want to move for you. Keep in mind you will have to work at this and it will take several moves before they start moving for you with little or no effort. To keep them relaxed:

  1. Do not push them from the back
  2. Let a lead establish itself (and remember a lead is 1 or 2 head in the front, NOT 15 or 20 head abreast !!!)
  3. Keep them loose – They will want to keep several feet to several yards between them while moving
  4. Keep your motion going from the front to back.
  5. If you have cattle wandering off in the wrong direction, try to approach them from the front. They will go by you and try to catch up to the other cattle (often at a trot or lope) without you having to “push” them.
  6. Do not turn the cattle from back to front by riding between them and the fence. This only turns the back of the herd first, which slows the forward motion of the herd and ususally begins other problems. Turn the lead first and the rest of the herd will turn as they  approach you.

          The first couple of times you may have to ride hard to get them lined out as it is not established in them to follow one another (as we have spent their entire lives keeping them from doing so). Once they begin figuring it out you may have to go at a trot just to keep up with them and get them turned into the right gate. In the following video I picked these steers up in a 640 acre stubble field. They had been there for approximately three weeks, and all but five head were together (and those five head were only about 200 yards away). I had driven the cattle out the first gate and across a field to the fence along a county road. This video will show me turn the cattle off the road and leave as 723 steers go through the gate with no one and noting to turn them. This was the second gate of a six gate, three mile move I made with these steers and no help.


          These methods work especially well with pairs if you want to keep them paired throughout the move. A few years ago I was working on a large registered outfit. We were always moving pairs in groups of 350 or more. For some reason these guys were always wadding them from the back. Moves which should have taken a few hours would turn into a long day (or several days). One move was dreaded because the cattle would ball up at the bottom of a mountain and turn the wrong way and would not be paired. The funny thing about this was although there was a 10-foot gate right in the road they were trailed down, they wanted to turn the cattle left to take them through a 30-foot gate followed by another turn to the right. One day we gathered that pasture and I talked one of the guys at the bottom of the pasture into opening that narrow gate. I had a couple of interns with me who allowed the cattle to string out, and I just stayed at the front until about 50 yards from the gate, and let them go. The cattle ran through the gate with calves at side, through three more gates and into the trap where we wanted them. A few calves missed the gate, bawled and their mothers came back for them. Needless to say the guy who had argued about them not going through the gate thought it was “lucky” and had nothing to do with letting them string out.

          I want to mention one other thing that causes a lot of stress here. It is something nearly everyone does from time to time to make things easier, but that causes a lot of stress. That is farmering down and leading your cattle with a feed wagon.  Cattle have their own pecking order. When you stop in the middle of a pasture with a load of feed the same cattle are there at the truck every day and the same cattle are always out on the fringes. Alphas first on feed and the lower down the pecking order, the longer they have to wait to get on feed. When you start moving cattle with feed, they will line up in the same way. The cattle next to the load will be trying to nibble as they go. The ones on the back are waiting to get to feed. It would be like going to a restaurant and fighting with a bunch of NFL linebackers to see who gets to eat first (and adding to the frustration by having your prime rib moving away from you just fast enough that you can’t get to it) After awhile you lose interest and go to some fast food joint.

          This scenario is even more stressful if you are moving pairs.  The calves will automatically drop to the back rather than fight for feed with the cows. They lose track of their mothers, want to go back to where they came from and the wreck is on. Just let them move out, keep your motion going from front to back with the cattle going past you and you will never have problems moving your pairs, no matter how young they are. With yearling cattle,  this method will instill the instinct for the cattle to follow one another.  Once the cattle get the idea  one person can move some pretty  large groups of cattle. I regularly move from 300 to more than 700 head of steers  with only a deaf dog for help and few problems (Anyone who claims to never have a problem probably never does anything.)
Herd Behavior
Econmomics
Watching the Gate
Cost effectiveness of intensive grazing

Stopping your horse
Contact
Bud Williams Stockmanship
HMI International
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