Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Questions

I'd like to try something a bit different with this blog post.  Usually, I try to share stories and perspectives related to my work as a stockman.  This time, however, I hope to share an experience and ask questions - I hope my fellow stockmen (and women) will join in the conversation!  One of the things I like most about what I do for a living is the opportunity to learn constantly!  Let me know what you think about this approach!

Last week, at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, we moved around 170 heifers from the unirrigated rangeland pasture where they'd been grazing back to irrigated pasture at our headquarters - a cattle drive of about 2 miles.  Two of us were horseback (or muleback, in my case).  While I usually use 2 border collies for this type of job, my older (and more skilled) dog was lame - so I used Ernie by himself.  We also had help from a colleague on an ATV at critical points in the drive.

A couple of notes about my equine and canine partners.  I rode my saddle mule, Frisbee.  Before coming to the Center about 5 weeks ago, Frisbee had never worked cattle.  I've used her for small jobs since bringing her to work, but yesterday was by far the biggest piece of work we've attempted.  Previously, she's been somewhat afraid of cattle, and she's also been VERY reluctant to cross creeks (those of you with mule experience know how "reluctant" they can be).  Ernie has made tremendous strides as a stockdog in the last 6 months.  He's easily the most courageous dog I have, and he has incredible drive - so much so that I have to force him to take breaks when it's hot.  On the other hand, he's not as solid on his flanks and other commands as I would like.  My colleague was mounted on one of the Center horses, Rose - she's a pretty handy horse.  My colleague is a good rider who doesn't have a great deal of experience with low-stress livestock handling.  He is, however, willing to learn!

The gather went fairly well.  My mule has become quite bonded with Rose (the other equine) - and she suffered some separation anxiety when we started our separate circles.  Interestingly, her anxiety disappeared when we came upon the first cattle in our part of the gather.  From that point forward, she was fine.  She's not the most athletic mule, but she handled the work just fine - I was very pleased.

Because we gathered from 3 separate fields, we were able to let the cattle settle before we started driving them.  I've found that this makes for a less stressful move - the heifers had a chance to drink, stretch and urinate/deficate before we started moving them.  Once we were out of the pastures, though, they wanted to graze.  So here's my first question:
Would the heifers have moved better if we'd started the drive later in the morning (after they'd had a chance to graze and drink)?  I wanted to start early to beat the heat, but I wonder if they would have moved better had they eaten first.
Eventually, we worked them up a hill and through a gate into the next field.  This part went well - we eased them through a difficult gate, which they walked through calmly.  At the next gate, however, things didn't go so smoothly.

At the next gate, we had to take them across a paved road and through another gate into an ungrazed pasture.  Since this gate is not in a corner, we needed to provide the visual cues (rather than rely on a fenceline) to get them through the gate.  This was further complicated by another error - we failed to open the entry gate before letting them out onto the road.  About half the cows went down the road and found some green grass in a boggy spot along the road.  The other half of the cattle walked up the fenceline in the pasture we were trying to come out of.  I succeeded in getting the cattle in the road turned around, while the other rider got the heifers that were still in the field turned back to the gate.  Once I got heads pointed toward the gate, everybody went through fine.  Here's my second question:
Could we have done something different here (besides making sure the gate across the road was open)?
Once the cattle were through the gate, about two-thirds of them kegged up in a brushy corner of the pasture - normally a rider would have been in place to prevent this, but we were both otherwise occupied during the road crossing.  We had to take them back the way they'd come and turn them up the hill to hit the trail we wanted to use.  The third of the cows that didn't keg up were already on the trail well out ahead of us. This led to our third challenge - because we had to deal with the back of the herd, the leaders ended up in a creek bottom upstream from where we wanted to cross.  This situation required more riding in steep country (and help from the ATV rider).  With green forage and water, the cows were quite reluctant to leave the creek.  My third question:

Should we have stopped the leaders and bunched the herd up before proceeding?  Does it ever make sense to stop movement that's going in the intended direction (even when we're not there to guide it)?

We finally got the heifers out of the creek and bunched the entire group at the gate where we cross the county road.  The leaders were just turning back towards us as we brought the last of the cattle towards the gate.  A colleague opened the gate, and the heifers field across the road and into the irrigated pasture.  They were happy critters (as were we!).

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