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Paddock Design and Stockmanship – Part 2: The Case for Middle of the Run Gates

By   /  July 31, 2017  /  11 Comments

Changing infrastructure, and changing our minds about how we move cattle is key to middle-of-the-run gates. Here’s how it works, and why you’ll find it easier.

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We’ve already looked at what happens when we place a paddock gate in the corner and force cattle through it.  It can work, but it requires great focus and pressure by the herders and results in increased stress on the animals.

Figure 1 shows what happens if we move the paddock gate to the center of the east/west fence line. Basically, the herders lose the advantage of the containment of the eastern line fence. As the cattle are forced through the gateway, they (naturally) begin to seek personal space, but without the eastern fence line, “free” cattle reaching the new paddock spread out both east and west, causing the initial herd to split and follow their free sisters in both directions away from the gateway. The wreck is on, and twice as bad as before.

Obviously, moving the gate from the corner to the middle of the run is not the single answer. The answer to this problem is changing the herding behavior of the humans.

While I am a religious adherent to “Pressure and Release” herding when I am processing or sorting cattle, when I am out in the field moving cattle from one paddock to the next, I do not push, force, or drive cattle. I lead cattle. Every herd of cattle on each of my grazing cells is trained to come to call and follow the leader (that’s me, the herdsman). I began actively training cattle to follow (rather than be herded) many years ago, and the main reason is efficiency. It is simply much, much more time-efficient to move cattle from one place to another if they are willing participants.

One outcome of my decision to train cattle to follow me is the movement of gates from the corners of each paddock to the middle of each fence run. This change of gate placement was evolutionary at first. When I noticed that middle-of-the-run gates simply worked better, I began installing them as I was improving my fencing. Now, every new cell gets center gates during initial construction. I do this because it works. Let’s see why.

Figure 2 shows what happens when we call and lead cattle through a typical corner gateway. Basically, the same problem as before: as the initial cattle get through the gateway, they seek personal space and turn west along the fence line. Immediately, some of the remaining cattle seek to follow them and the problems begin.

Now, let’s see what happens when we change both infrastructure and herding style. Figure 3 shows cattle movement when we call and lead the herd through a center-run gateway. As long as the herder/leader continues moving north as the initial cattle reach the gateway, the initial cattle that pass through the gateway continue moving north also. And although there is still a slight tendency of the cattle to seek some personal space, the herd is significantly less stressed by the herding process (no one is pushing them from behind) so their desire for personal space is also less. The later arriving cattle typically slow down and walk calmly through the gateway. When the entire herd has entered the new paddock the herder walks calmly back and closes the gate while the cattle calmly graze the fresh paddock.

No muss, no fuss, no stress on anyone, and it happens with vastly less force, energy and time than with conventional herding and conventional corner-gate design. I would also note that calling and leading cattle requires only one herder. Additional herders (or guests) typically foul things up.

A final note: I’m not selling anything. I don’t need to convince anyone to change their fencing or their herding. I do get a laugh from every website and bulletin I read that reminds us how important it is to place your cross-fence gates in the corner. The rationale is always the same: corner gates save money because you only have to construct a single H-brace. Also, corner gates reduce labor because the existing fence line reduces the number of herders you need to force cattle through the gate.

I guess I’d ask people to decide about this themselves. Try this: select a herd of cattle that already likes you, perhaps because you brought them hay last winter. Take them to a place where there is a middle-of-run gateway. Drive around a bit, call the cows and see if they will follow you. Drive through the center gate and see what happens.

Now, think about how your life might be different if every gateway on the ranch was a middle-of-run gate and you stopped chasing cows. And consider this too: if your infrastructure has already evolved to single-wire electric fencing, adding some middle-of-run gates is pretty inexpensive and easy.

As usual, it appears that changing our philosophy, changing our attitudes, changing our minds, is the most difficult part of changing our world.

Happy Grazing.

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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

11 Comments

  1. Rob Havard says:

    I find if I lead the cattle to a corner gate then they are happy to travel through to the fresh grazing on their own and don’t need leading. I walk back gently pressuring the open field flank of the outermost cows. If the cattle are no too strung out to the gate then this works every time with no stress or confusion.

  2. George says:

    Could you go more into how you are training the cattle to follow you? I have my cow/calf group pretty well trained to follow me. However I struggle with my weaned calves/steers/feeder group of animals. When I move paddocks I call em, they perk up/look up, but 7/10 times I end up having to get behind and pressure them to move up when it is time to move pastures. If I am just moving a temporary wire into a new paddock, in the same pasture, they do great, come and are excited. It’s the long distance moves that they struggle with..

    • John Marble says:

      Thanks, George.
      We’ve received a number of inquiries like yours about training techniques. I’ll be working on an article about that soon. As you suggest, there are some classes of animal and some situations where it is more difficult to make progress. I’ve learned a few little tricks that I’m happy to share. Stay tuned!

  3. Chad says:

    For me it seems almost regardless of where i put the gate once they’ve been through that paddock once or twice they have it pretty well figured out. Also calling them and getting them to bunch up a bit at the gate before opening usually helps keeping them all going forward through the gate.

  4. Jess Jackson Jr says:

    I see both sides of the perspectives. Here is my experience and observation. We lead our cattle growing up and they would follow everywhere including the cattle trailer if we had a feed bucket. We had to cull some otherwise good cows that were rebels but we didn’t also didn’t have to run pounds off of cows, get high blood pressure and use profanity or need horses. The goal was profit and not feeling like a rodeo cowboy.

    We built corner gates because each of the gates was the same length and they were interchangeable. The gate just opened became the gate for the pasture being closed.

    We often left 24 hours of open gate for cows to go back and get calves but they all wanted the greener grass and moved to the new pasture within a day and with their baby. Yes we checked our animals daily but that was part of the fun.

    • DWK says:

      Jess,

      I happen to have both corner and middle and don’t have a preference. My cows tell me when they are ready to move to another pasture, they congregate in front of the gate. I simple go open the gate and walk away, the cows and calves all wonder into the new pasture. Once they are out I’ll go close the gate. Occasionally I have problems when I am ready to move them and they aren’t ready, the calves always seem to lag behind. I’ll have to escort the “baby sitter” out and usually the calves will follow, sometimes it requires a little pressure on them. Sometimes I find that if I leave the gate open to long the cows will decide the grass is better where they came from and return, then I have them half in half out.

      As I have gotten older I realize there are days I don’t know whether I found my rope or lost my cow.

  5. Curt Gesch says:

    Thank you for another helpful article.
    I do lead my cattle, but I have only a few so I cannot make fair extrapolations to larger herds.

    But leading is the way to go, in my opinion. The only caveat I have is that I have to figure out what to do if the bull decides to be just behind me. Usually he brings up the read, which makes me feel better.

    When I get to a new paddock, I also walk the edges and “show” the cows where the best grass is, etc.

    As a certain songwriter said, “you may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

    Shalom/Salaam,
    Curt

  6. I’m not buying it. Maybe it works in small paddocks where you can see the whole field, but not in the mountains of the West.

    When you LEAD cattle, you leave behind the ones you most need to include: the lame, the recalcitrant bulls, the unpaired, etc.

    I ALWAYS put a gate in EVERY corner. My cows see us coming with horses and dogs, they gather their calves, and they are lined out for a half-mile ahead of us.

    Gates in the middle of the field mean two braces, or two tall set-posts tied across the top. Gates in the corner mean the addition of ONE post to the two braces that are already there.

    • Luke says:

      Kent, I agree with you about the construction. The reason my gates are in corners is because it’s faster/easier to build that way. I call my cattle and hold them at the gate until all animals arrive. Then they follow me through the gate and I continue to lead them through the new paddock until the last animals pass through the gate.

      • Peter Ramsey Australia says:

        When we muster we
        Use a tin of grain on the back of the ute.
        We can muster 4000 acres in a afternoon.
        If we get the horses involved we feel like our US friends. The old three two one.
        3 men 2 days to brand 1 calf. It’s more fun but takes longer.

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