I first learned about using lead steers to help manage stockers back in the early 90’s from Dr. Gordon Hazard, the renowned grazing farmer from West Point, MS. Listening to his presentation that day, I learned how having a lead animal that is extremely calm and willing to follow you anywhere is a tremendous asset when bringing in new stocker calves or weaning your own farm raised calves. One thing Dr. Hazard stressed is that you don’t pick a lead animal, he picks you, and after having three different lead animals since that time, I will second that statement.
All of our lead animals have been bottle raised. Clifford [the Big Red Dog] came out of a Beefmaster cow we purchased with a potload of other cows from the King Ranch down in Texas. He was part of a first calf heifer mixup that sometimes happens, and he was left bawling by himself. Clifford is now 14 years old and part of the family. He is the ugliest steer I’ve ever seen – I don’t think he has a single correct physical characteristic – but he’s worth his weight in gold to us.
Calves are not leaders and much of their stress when being brought to a new farm or being weaned from their mothers is the lack of leadership. After all, they have been following the herd led by older cows for all of their lives. Clifford replaces their mothers and leads the young herd to water and new pasture. We had been weaning calves on pasture before we had Clifford, and while it’s always worked well for us, it has been much easier to move a large group of newly weaned calves from pasture to pasture since Clifford came along. The other added benefit is that Clifford and I are the best of friends and this in turn makes the calves feel the same way about me.
We have a second lead steer to go with Clifford-probably twice as many lead steers as we need – but Buddy applied for the job and filled all the qualifications, so he has stayed. While Clifford is showing his age and having some foot troubles, Buddy is a very well made animal and is the one out front when we make our long distance moves. If I were to fault Clifford, it would be to say that he is a little too smart sometimes. He seems to know when we’re taking off on a long 1-2 mile move and he’s not keen to walk that far. This is not a problem with Buddy. All he wants is to be scratched, and I think he would follow me 10 miles if he thought I would be scratching his brisket when we got to the end.
These two guys are a big part of our farm and while they do eat a lot [I’m about 5’10” so you can see they are big boys] we feel strongly that they bring returns many times beyond the value of what they eat.
I wholeheartedly agree with you, lead steers do not replace the need to learn and practice good stockmanship. At the conference back in the early 90’s where I first heard Dr. Hazard speak about lead steers the other speaker on the agenda was Bud Williams. He opened my eyes to so many ideas about stockmanship and cattle behavior that changed forever how I viewed cattle work. The lessons I learned that day about changing the mindset of newly received calves was invaluable to us back when we were buying pots of calves from neighboring states.
But at the same time having a very calm lead steer for the newly received cattle to bond with sure made the job easier for us. And when the neighbors coon hounds busted through the middle of a potload of newly arrived, jittery, 450lb. heifers from Mississippi it was sure nice to have Clifford, calmly chewing his cud, for the heifers to gather around, rather than have them take off like a flushed covey of quail.
We no longer bring in outside cattle so Buddy and Clifford are really not necessary for our operation. Combining good stockmanship with portable fencing and frequent moves the need for lead steers as well as stock dogs is greatly diminished if not totally unnecessary on most grass farms.
I would suggest, however, that if your stocker operation includes bringing in lots of green, unweaned calves then having a really good lead steer in conjunction with the use of good stockmanship can sure make the job easier. And even though Buddy and Clifford are no longer necessary on our farm we’ll never begrudge them the grass they eat as compensation for the thousands of calves they’ve helped to guide and gentle over the years.
While I’ve used lead cattle before, and find that they can be helpful for leading, when I learned stockmanship as taught by Bud Williams, I found that I no longer needed a lead animal. Additionally, having a lead animal does not negate the need for good stockmanship. If you are going to invest time and money into only one, I highly suggest learning stockmanship from someone trained by Bud Williams and through Buds videos which are available on his website: stockmanship.com.
I run cattle on several different places at the same time, having lead cattle on each one just isn’t cost effective. Plus, I can do so much more with stockmanship skills that I really believe it is one of the best investments you can make if you raise cattle or sheep.
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