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

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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