Monday, December 27, 2010

Training Cattle To Act As A Herd

We have become accustomed to controlling cattle and their grazing by the use of fences. The reason more ranches do not use intensive rotational systems is because they assume they need to spend more money and labor with even more permanent and temporary fences. The fact is it is possible to train cattle to act as a herd so that we can follow rotational grazing plans without the extra fences. By having all of our cattle in one herd it also saves time and labor in putting out mineral and supplement as it only has to go in one place. But how do we use reduced stress cattle handling techniques so that our cattle stay together on their own?

We all assume we have seen herd behavior, but in reality, all we have seen is cattle forced into a group situation. As soon as we remove the fences, or open the gates into a larger pasture, the cattle scatter. If the cattle were actually acting as a herd, they would stay together when the fences were removed. So how do cattle look and behave when they are acting as a herd?

The first clue that cattle are acting as a herd, is that they will all be facing in the same direction when they are grazing. The distance between them will be dictated by feed density. The more dense the feed, the closer together the cattle will be. If the feed is scarce, the cattle will spread out accordingly. There will be one or two leaders which will not only be in the front, they will also determine when the herd moves. As the leader moves off to a fresh feeding ground, those closet to it will begin to move in single file, with the rest of the herd picking up and following them. When the feed is dense, the leader may only move a hundred yards. If feed is scarce, they may move a quarter mile. When the leader stops and begins to graze again, the rest of the cattle will stop behind them and resume grazing.

So how long does it take to get cattle to act as a herd. With yearling cattle it generally takes anywhere from three days to two weeks. With older cattle that may be really spoiled, it may take up to six weeks. Instilling the herd behavior is quite easy to do if we just allow it to happen.

When I talk about allowing things to happen, I'm not suggesting that we sit back, do nothing and everything happens on its own. What I am talking about is doing things in a way which allows cattle to go where we want, without feeling pressured. To do this we have to realize how cattle react to things in relationship to other cattle. We cannot do this unless we override our own basic instincts to make things happen.
For instance, in the sidebar picture of this blog, 200 heifers are strung out going up the mountain. From looking at the picture, and the way the cattle are traveling, one may assume that these cattle are going to water. However I was moving these cattle up the mountain to new pasture. They had no idea of where they were going, but they were moving up the mountain as if it was their idea to do so. This is how cattle will drive if we don't pressure as a predator.

Every person who practices reduced stress cattle handling will tell you that it is a natural reaction of cattle to speed up when you go in the opposite direction of the cattle. When people try this they think it does not work because the cattle turn around and run off. This is because they have not learned how to read the cattle so that they don't react as if a predator was approaching them. The best way to learn how not to act as a predator when approaching cattle from the front, is to observe cattle in a set of pens or feedlot.

When two cows are walking across the pen in the opposite direction, the dominant cow will tilt its head slightly towards the other cow. The less dominant animal will speed up and go past the dominant cow. This will also work if you are horseback or afoot. The trick is in reading the cattle to see if they are viewing you as if you are a more dominant cow, or if you are a predator. If cattle are viewing you as a predator, they will begin looking for a way out and turn around to go in the opposite direction.

This is where human instinct gets you into trouble. The “normal” reaction is to speed up and force the animal to turn around and go with the other animals. Of course when you do this, you are convincing yourself that whoever came up with this idea is crazy (As well as “proving” it in your own mind). What you need to do in this situation is to slow down and ride a few yards away from the animal or animals wanting to turn around.
Almost instantly the animal or animals wanting to turn back will settle down and usually turn around.. This is when you go past them. In the training phase, you may need to put a little pressure on them for them to resume traveling with the rest of the cattle. However once you have been working with them like this for a couple of days, you will begin to notice they will start speeding up on their own and trotting (or even running) to catch up with the rest of the cattle.

Within a day or two you will notice the cattle stringing out when you move them, nearly identical to how cattle go into water. You need to resist the urge to put them any tighter than they naturally want to travel. If you start getting large gaps of fifty or more yards, you can bring the stragglers up by simply trotting against the movement from a few yards out. The stragglers will look up, see you coming against their movement and begin trotting to catch up. Once again, resist the urge to push them to the rest of the cattle as that is what they will do anyway (On their own and with no stress).

After only one or two moves in this manner, the cattle will begin to stay together when you stop them or put them through a gate. By making a series of daily moves, cattle will begin staying together after they are moved and acting as a herd. Once you have the cattle trained to act as a herd, they will not only stay together, one person will be able to move up to a thousand head (or more) with no help.

The video below shows me putting over seven-hundred head of steers through the second gate of a three mile, seven gate move. The gate they are going through is off of a county road, with nothing to stop the cattle if they decided to go past it. Not only does this video show that one person can move large numbers of cattle alone, it also shows how differently cattle may act when they are being moved naturally, without stress!

Next week I will discuss how to start cattle that are acting as a herd, as well as how to turn them easily while keeping everything acting as a herd.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Evaluating Our Management

It is that time of year again. No, I'm not talking about Christmas. It is the time of year that all of the trade publications are encouraging you to re-evaluate your management and pay your dues to the cattleman's associations. I think it is not only time to re-evaluate your cow herd management, but to also evaluate how these publications are suggesting we manage our cattle.

The sustainability of any cattle operation is dependent upon profitability. Nearly anything we do to increase income seems to involve putting money out to accomplish. As an industry, we have acquired a mindset which dictates we must spend money to save money. This is a mindset which we need to get away from. There are too much of what we are doing as an industry which are adding to operating expenses which we take for granted as being necessary could be changed.

The educational system doesn't help. Rather than giving advice as to reducing costs associated with calving January to March, they give advice on how much feed and nutrients cattle need during the third trimester during the holiday season (as in a recent article from the University of Ohio). A study just started this fall at of Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture is examining the difference between calving in September/October vs January/February.

If you have a ranch, or are managing one for someone else, you need to be thinking of two things, sustainability and profitability of the range land and cattle. If you are calving at a time of year that requires you to feed extra hay and supplement to your cattle during the extra trimester, you are cutting into the profitability of your cattle. If you are feeding your calves as well as feeding enough for your cattle to lactate and hold body condition, you are cutting into your profitability. You should be asking yourself why there are no studies being done on timing the third trimester so that cattle are calving on green grass rather than purchased feed and supplement.

Simple logic dictates that calving on grass is less expensive than paying for hay production and extra supplements. Just how much can you save? I have one friend who calved in June/July in western Colorado who didn't feed his cattle at all. I have another friend in Nebraska who changed to a late April/early June calving season and he now feeds 2/3 less hay. Both men weaned at an correspondingly later time, with nearly identical weights to winter calving. How much money would you be adding to your profit line if you could cut your hay bill by 2/3? Could you make even more money by selling the excess hay you have been feeding, or increase the size of your herd with the savings?

Another area in which advice given by universities and publications is pasture management. There are many articles out there which give the benefits of rotational grazing programs, but all of them require intensive labor and monetary investment in permanent and temporary fencing to control grazing. Can we really be more sustainable, or get more profit when we are spending more time and money to accomplish the same task of harvesting grass?

Then we have all of the articles on reduced stress cattle handling. There are two kinds of articles in this category. The first kind are the ones which appear as if they were written from a template. They contain all of the buzz phrases “slower is faster,” “flight zone,” “pressure and release,” then go on to explain the benefits. Yet they fail to really describe how to handle your cattle with less stress.

The other category is people who have no real understanding of how cattle work other than to train them by the Pavlov's Dog method. This method prescribes training your cattle to lead, which of course is accomplished by using feed. This may sound like a good method but it is much like gentling a horse by feeding it, without asking it to do anything. When you get them in the pens and start sorting or working them, like the horse, they may have no fear of you, but they don't have any respect either. The end result is still more stress on the cattle than needed.

Cattle are herd animals. Yet we have been trained over the years to think it is normal for our cattle to spread out across the pasture when we let them through the gate. We have been “educated” to believe we need fences to keep them where we want, and several people to move them. We have been educated on this so much that most people don't recognize actual herd behavior when they see it. In fact this lack of recognizing what a herd looks like is so bad, that I have had people inform me there was something wrong with cattle when I had them working as a herd. Next week I will begin describing not only how cattle act as a herd, but also how to re-establish herd behavior in your cattle.

The final thing I want to touch on this week is the current high market in live cattle. Your banker will be encouraging you to go into more debt for cattle because they are worth so much. Of course this is standard protocol when the market is going up. The problem is that the cattle market is cyclical, which is exacerbated by the global market and whatever flavor of the month USDA comes up with for meat imports. Prices were at or below breakeven for many producers until Canada had a case of mad cow disease. As soon as the access to Canadian cattle was closed, US prices went back up. Despite the current bear market on cattle, I would recommend you resist the temptation to acquire debt to build your herd. In fact, this may be the best time to liquidate your herd to someone who is following their banker's advice. Then you can lease your pastures to yearlings and sell your hay, or lease to pairs where you are guaranteed profitability. By carefully managing your finances, you will be solvent enough to rebuild your herd when the market drops again. When the others are going bankrupt, or getting out of the business because cattle aren't worth anything, you will be able to shift your income from leasing to selling cattle.

Until next week, have a Merry Christmas and think out of the box!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We do things why????

We tend to do most things because, well, because that is the way we have seen it done all of our lives. When we change what we do, it is often because we have read an article in a trade publication or it was something we learned in school. While learning is a good thing, it also a good practice to logically look at, and question the information being given.

An example is a recent article in the online edition of Beef Magazine. In this article, students at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, at Curtis, Nebraska are studying the differences between spring and fall calving. In this study the traditional “spring” calving begins with the heifers calving in January with the cows beginning to calve in February. Wouldn't this be more accurately be described as “winter” calving? The heifers calving in the fall begin calving in September. So where are the advantages and savings between the two?

Granted, the fall calvers will have an easier time getting started, as there are seldom any September blizzards. However you will not only be feeding your lactating cows through the winter, but their calves as well. About the only real advantage to changing your calving season to this schedule is you should have less sickness caused from calving in September and will need less bedding. However this is offset by having to feed the calves all winter and stress of possibly weaning them in pens soggy from spring rains or late spring blizzards. Can this really be more that much more productive than the traditional “spring” calving? But why would we want to be calving at either time? The usual answer is to work around haying schedules, moving to summer pasture or diversification. So why are you diversified?

Perhaps you learned about how necessary diversification is in college, or perhaps your family's operation has been diversified for so long you don't remember exactly why you diversified. Either way it is time to ask a few simple questions.
1. Just how profitable can running cattle be when you are forcing yourself to feed at least twice as much hay and supplement you need just to work around your farming schedule?
2. Just how profitable is it to spend money on bedding and extra labor just so you can calve at the worst possible time of the year to fit your farming schedule?
3. Finally, how profitable is it spending the extra money on antibiotics and absorbing the extra mortality rate from calving around your farming schedule?

I don't know about you, but to me the answer to all of those questions is that even if you are making a little profit, you are also throwing a lot of money out the door while putting a lot of added work and stress in your life. If you are running fewer than a thousand cows you would probably be better off leasing your pasture to a neighbor and selling the feed. Your gross income may take a hit, but that would be offset by lower labor and the elimination of feed costs.

If you are running over a thousand head, you would be money ahead by having one person for running the cattle (no farm duties, strictly running the cattle). By doing this, you could cut your winter feed bill by half (or more), cut your mortality rates, reduce your antibiotic costs and totally eliminate the cost of bedding and extra labor for calving. In addition, the person dedicated to the cattle will be able to treat any illnesses, bad eyes or lameness which occurs when the cattle are being ignored because of the farming schedule.

If you are not farming, and are calving in the fall or during the winter you need to consider how much it is actually costing you. I have a friend in Nebraska who works for a large cattle operation. They changed their calving dates to May/June so they could calve on grass instead of hay. That move saved them 2/3 of their winter hay bill. You need to ask yourself a few simple questions as well.
1. Would you be better off having your hay put up on shares rather than footing all of the cost of hay production?
2. Would it be more profitable to calve on green grass, and increase your herd size by utilizing hay meadows for pasture and buying the small(er) amount of hay you need to make it through the winter?
3. If part of your reason for calving early is to get the calves big enough to make it to summer pasture, why can't you calve on your summer range? (realizing that the biggest cause of calving problems is caused from caving during the winter...)

When to calve is only one part of the puzzle in making the maximum profit from our cattle. There are other questions we need to ask ourselves about infrastructure, handling procedures and marketing techniques. But for now, the main question is, “Are we maximizing profitability and sustainability in the way we are doing things now?”

If you like this blog give it a follow and share it with friends. If you have any questions feel free to comment or email me directly!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

How and why we do what we do

For the most part, this blog will be covering ways for you run your ranch more profitably by operating in ways which will allow you to increase capacity while streamlining your infrastructure needs. We also have an ongoing battle with animal rights organizations and environmentalist groups. Both of these issues are tied into education and how our educational system, like our political system, has gone from one to educate the public on facts, to one of promoting the philosophies or agendas of special interest groups and corporations.

In my first post on this blog, I used Dan Dagget's experience of changing from an anti-grazing environmentalist, to an environmentalist who now believes that the best tool we have to improve land, is cattle. I did this for Several reasons.
First, this shows that even staunch environmentalists can come to realize that cattle can actually be beneficial for the environment. Secondly it shows just how twisted organizations can be when “educating” its members when there is a political or economic motive behind the education. Third, it shows a way the ranching community can improve range conditions at a lower cost.
Intensive, rotational grazing has been around for quite some time. However it has been largely ignored because of the associated cost of added infrastructure to build and maintain. The fact is we have spent so many generations teaching cattle to not act as a herd, we have forgotten they are herd animals. We have been convinced over time that we need to spend so much money on added interior fences to follow intensive grazing programs that conventional wisdom tells us it is not a practical option.
However it is relatively easy to re-introduce the herd instinct in cattle. Once that is accomplished, one person can herd a thousand head or more through a rotational system without the need of interior fences, let alone adding additional ones. In doing this we can also concentrate our water points, reducing the amount of time and money spent on monitoring and maintaining the water system.
To instill the herd instinct in our cattle we need to re-train ourselves in how we handle them. As in learning any new method we have to open our mind a little to really learn it. I have already built a site showing how easily it is to train cattle to act as a herd.
In the meantime, let us all start thinking about the motives of the people who are feeding us information, as well as how we can improve our operations through a minimal yet holistic approach. If you have any questions, feel free to comment, or email me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stepping out of the box

      Human nature dictates that we resist information from outside our immediate experience. If we have been operating a ranch for decades, or have recently graduated from college, that we close our minds to those ideas which don't fit our immediate experience, or what we have been taught to believe. This also holds true from those who have purchased ranches to use for hunting, or to preserve the environment.

    With this in mind, does it not make sense to explore all avenues of knowledge rather than only those we are familiar with? Yet human reaction it so dismiss information which does not fit neatly into, or contradicts our own "box" of knowledge. Most "environmentalists" are rabid in their belief that cattle are bad for the environment.

However, as often happens, if we get all of our information from a source with the same mindset, all we learn is more of the same thing. By stepping out of our "Box", we may learn about things which contradict what is in our knowledge box that are true. As an example of this I am going to use the example of Dan Dagget.

     Mr. Dagget was once a charter member of the Sierra Club, as well as one of the first one hundred members of the radical Earth First organization. He was also instrumental in having at least one area designated as "wilderness" and go back to "nature." In the following three videos, he tells not only has he changed his mind about cattle and the environment, but in just how much he believes that cattle are the best way to improve the land. This is an interesting three video series that shows just how how far off the "facts" we have in our knowledge box can be!