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.