Thirty years ago I was a young rancher, struggling to find my way in a tough industry. I was saddled with a heavy debt load, boundless energy and a vision of someday owning a hundred cows.
Back then (as now) I leaned heavily on friends for help and counsel. My first mentor was my old pal Duane. One day Duane pulled into the yard and asked if we could go look at the cows; he didn’t have to ask twice. I pointed the way across the creek and down a dirt track that led to a brand new cross fence that I wanted to show off. As we approached the gateway he smiled and nodded at the prickly strands of barb wire and the solid H-braces.
“Nice lookin’ fence. Sure hope you put in another gate, though. This one here, right in the middle of the run, well, it’s gonna be tough to drive cattle through it”.
It was with a bit of pride and some relief that I pointed down toward the corner of the field: of course I put in a gate at the corner. Everybody knows you have to do that. How could you ever force cattle through a gateway if you didn’t have a fence on the side to help?
Two decades later, I had to stop and chuckle as I found myself contemplating doing some repairs on that same corner gate. Here’s the funny part: in all of those intervening years I could only recall using that gate twice, both times with recalcitrant bulls that were just plain knuckleheads. Meanwhile, the gate in the middle of the run, the one that Duane had cautioned me about, it seemed I moved cattle through there every week or two, cattle coming and going as they moved through the grazing system.
Last spring I thought of Duane once again as I led a pasture tour for my local grazing group. The property we were looking at has a very conventional paddock layout (see Figure 1), one that had evolved over the years. As I had increased the number of paddocks over time, adding more cross fences, the paddocks had become very long and narrow; not the best design for grazing. Also, the back 1/3 of the property was laid out as a wagon wheel, a design I had significant reservations about. Imagine my surprise when my tour guests ignored these trouble spots, instead complaining about the lack of gateways leading from my lane into each paddock. How could this possibly work? How could I get my animals from paddock to paddock if I didn’t have gates?
I decided the best way to clear up this issue was simply to leave the lane and walk deep into a paddock. Once there, I pointed out that each paddock did, in fact, have a gate for entering and leaving, but that the gates were placed mid-run, rather than in the corners. I will never forget the response I received from one of the folks in that group:
“That will never work!”
There were plenty of heads nodding in agreement. The interesting thing to me was that many of those paddock fences and gates had been in place for twenty years or more, and they did, in fact, “work” every day. Later that afternoon we spent some time at the white board, making poor drawings of cattle, fences, gates and herders. What follows below is a result of that conversation, along with some thoughts about paddock design, animal behavior and human psychology.
First, a Big Idea for you to consider: decisions about where to place gates, lanes, water sources, etc., are in large part a function of how you decide to relate to your livestock and what you want them to do. In short, form follows function. How you lay out your fencing depends on how you handle your animals. Your chosen method of herding, your stockmanship style, should greatly influence the design of your grazing cells.
Next, a couple of my observations on cattle behavior. Cattle are fascinating, complicated animals when it comes to behavior, just like humans. Turns out, cattle suffer from two basic behaviors that are sometimes in conflict with each other. Consider this:
Herd Behavior: cattle are a bit like Yak or baitfish. When threatened or pressured by a predator, cattle tend to clump up, move closer together, and act as a group. We call this “herd instinct” and this desire to be part of a herd greatly influences how cattle act when we pressure them, (as when we are driving them to a different place, for instance).
Personal Space: cattle, like humans, desire a bit of personal space. If you observe cattle under no-stress conditions, you will note that they will be walking, grazing, sleeping with a significant buffer zone between them.
These two tendencies: trying to be with the group and trying to be separate are always in play, with the outcome being determined by how much stress (pressure) is being applied by a predator or a herder. The more pressure, the more herd behavior. The less pressure, the more independent/personal space behavior.
Figure 2 shows a standard approach for beginning to drive cattle from one paddock to the next. In this illustration I have shown three herders on foot, but the same pressure could be applied by a single mounted rider, multiple riders, herders with dogs; it doesn’t matter. The herders bring pressure to bear on the scattered cattle and begin moving the cattle toward the gate.
The next step is shown in Figure 3, where the cattle are pressured to leave the open field. The response to this pressure is to form a herd and begin moving away from the pressure (the herders). As the herd is moved toward the corner of the field (and the gate) the cattle become bunched more and more tightly together, following their herding instinct.
Figure 4 shows what happens as the leading edge of the cattle herd actually passes through the gate: the animals are released from pressure and they immediately begin to spread out. Because the leading cattle are beyond the fence, protected from the predator/herder, they revert to the desire for personal space. Interestingly, the greater the degree of stress the cattle were placed under in order to force them to and through the gate, the more extreme their reaction will be once they are through the gate. In the field, you will note that when highly stressed cattle are forced through a gate, rather than moving quickly ahead down the N/S fence line, the cattle immediately move west and spread out as quickly as possible. And here is where the trouble starts.
As the leading edge cattle are forced through the gateway, they quickly turn left, seeking personal space. Observe here that the cattle are actually moving toward the western-most herder. Obviously, the desire for personal space is greater than any fear of the herder who is on the other side of the fence. Next, the cattle that have not yet been forced through the gateway observe the now-freed cattle moving west, so they begin to turn west and attempt (due to herd behavior) to move west with the freed cattle. And so, the wreck is on, as shown in Figure 5.
The herder on the western flank of the herd must now apply even more pressure to the cattle herd to prevent them from moving west. This pressure results in even higher level of stress on the cattle and at some point, radical behavior ensues. Cattle will sometimes reach the breaking point, panic, and run through the herders’ picket line. They charge west, trying to remain in the herd with their sisters in the northern paddock.
So, what caused this wreck? I believe a combination of the natural behavior of the cattle (the conflict between the need for personal space and herd instinct) and a paradigm problem among the human herders: people like to control cattle. We seek dominion over the animals. Luckily, we can work on the human side of these problems.
Rather than controlling cattle, a radically different approach would be to observe natural cattle behavior and adjust our infrastructure and our stockmanship to accommodate or even accentuate that natural behavior. My version of this is leading cattle instead of pushing them, and using middle-of-the-run gates. I’ll show you how that works in next week’s issue. Stay tuned!
As a kid and a young man, I would help my grandad move cattle on his place. I’ve been that cussing figure in Figure 5 more than once, but as a kid, I had no idea why. Reading your article this morning was like a lightbulb moment illuminating those problems so many years ago. Looking back, my grandad probably knew why, but he was the type to let a kid figure stuff out on their own. I didn’t help him often enough to really observe cattle behavior. I realize that was a mistake now that he’s passed.
Thank you for your insights and sharing your experience with us.
I am looking forward to your next article because, like you, I prefer to lead the cattle. I only have four cows right now, but find that even with so few, leading is much more “respectful”–if that is the right word. My grandchildren have learned that calling from afar and then making sure at least one of the cows sees us, gets one moving and then the rest follow.
Thank you very much for your comments.
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