Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Stockmanship Notes: Starting Right

In my experience, moving mothers with young offspring (cows with calves, or ewes with lambs) is about the most difficult stock herding job there is.  The babies haven't learned the routine yet, and the mothers tend to be very protective.  Sometimes this job is complicated further by topography, poor fence design, weather, and other factors.  Each of these issues came into play last week while we were moving cows and calves into a new field at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC).

Let me set the scene: We had a group of 66 older cows, most of whom had calves at their sides, that needed to be moved.  The gates into the new field were located in a saddle (which means we had uphill and downhill slopes from that particular spot.  The day was warm, and we weren't able to get an early start.  Finally, the gate out of the current pasture didn't match up with the gate into the new pasture - which meant that we had some geometric challenges, as well!  A schematic of these pastures appears below:

When we arrived at the spot depicted above, we had cows and calves (though not necessarily cows with their own calves) in both Pasture A and Pasture B.  Three of us were horseback, and fourth person drove the truck (shown in Pasture C) and was available to help on foot.  We pushed all of the cattle through the gate into Pasture B and closed the gate to Pasture A.  We then set up the gates/truck going (briefly) through Pasture C and into Pasture D (our final destination).  The driver of the truck through some hay to the left (west) of the gate into Pasture D as a lure.  We started herding the cows and calves from Pasture B into Pasture D.

About two-thirds of the cows and calves went into the new pasture; it was the remaining one-third (mostly calves) that proved difficult.  The calves would see cows on the west side of the fence between B and D and would run uphill inside pasture B.  We'd work them back down towards the gate, only to have them break back up the hill, or on occasion downhill to the east in Pasture B.  For some calves, the pressure was too great, and they went through the fence between B and A.  Ultimately, a 50-yard move took the four of us just over an hour to complete.  Even though we used low-stress stockmanship principles, the move was stressful for everyone - people, horses and cattle.

That afternoon, I described the situation to my friend Roger Ingram, our local farm advisor and a fellow student of stockmanship.  Roger showed me an outstanding video clip from a Montana rancher Witt Hibbard, who edits an online publication called the Stockmanship Journal.  In the video, Hibbard demonstrated his approach to getting cows and calves up and moving.  As I've described before, Hibbard's technique looks slow - he's very patient - but the work gets done quickly.

His approach with pairs was to move obliquely towards the cattle (not directly towards them).  He would stop and wait for cows and calves to get up, and would make sure that they were mothered up (so that the cows weren't worried about their calves and vice versa).  He then would use short zigzag movements to ask them to move off.  I was struck by the fact (and I think he mentioned this in his narration) that the cows and calves moved like it was their own idea - they were very calm and relaxed.  And they went through the gate Hibbard wanted them to go through!

Today, I needed to move a different group of cows, so I tried this new approach.  It was an easier move in many ways - only 28 cows, three of which had brand new calves.  The gate we were going through was down hill from where the cows were lying.  The only complication was that the gate was in the middle of the fenceline (rather than at a corner).  I have found that mid-fence gates are often difficult for animals to see.  I rode a quad bike into the pasture, but did most of the work on foot.

I took an indirect line around the back of the group of cattle.  I paused and let them get up and stretch.  The cows without calves moved off; the mama cows stayed with their calves.  Once the back group of cows had risen, stretched and gone to the bathroom (sorry for the technical terminology), I did some short zigzags to get some movement, and then backed off to let the cows and calves pair up on their own time.  The pregnant cows then saw the gate and moved towards it at a moderate walking speed.  Their motion drew the attention of the rest of the cows in the field - and they all began to follow.  The last calf was still at my end of the pasture - she finished urinating and then looked around for her mother.  They paired up and trotted along behind the rest of the cows.  I followed slowly behind and shut the gates.

The geometry of these two moves was vastly different, but I think that had I used the approach I tried today on the larger group last week, it might have gone more smoothly.  I'll get a chance to find out tomorrow - we're moving the big group across a county road and into a new pasture tomorrow morning.  I'll keep you posted!


  1. Dan, is the clip of Witt Hubbard available online for viewing?

  2. I couldn't find it, Matthew - maybe Roger would know!