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Training Cattle to Follow – Part 1

By   /  November 27, 2017  /  5 Comments

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Several readers have asked for instruction in teaching cattle to follow. John Marble has written a two-part article on the subject. Part one begins with some basic thoughts on animal behavior, both human and bovine. It’s a good bet that with small modifications, this could work for all livestock.

Dateline: Raub, North Dakota, circa 1935

Kids were an important part of many farms.

My mother was born on the harsh prairie of the Dakotas, into an emigrant family that believed children should contribute to the welfare of the family, and that contribution was to be in the form of chores. After riding home from school (No, not on a bus. On a horse.) my mother’s first chore was to go to the milk shed and pour a scoop of oats into the feeder, then walk out to the top of a small rise behind the barn and call the family milk cow. For this task, she brought along an old tin bucket and a well-worn stick. In her high-pitched girl’s voice she would call out, then beat the dickens out of that bucket. When the cow wandered dutifully into the shed and put her head in the manger my mother would slide the wooden stanchion closed and my grandmother Kate would commence with the nightly milking.

This little story is important, I think, because it demonstrates two important concepts. First, cattle – like most every other mammal I am familiar with – are pretty easily trained using positive reinforcement (a few oats, in this case). Next, cattle easily associate oral stimulation (hearing a sound) with some sort of positive outcome. Truth be told, I see the same sort of easy association with negative reinforcement and oral cues, at least on some ranches. Some folks scream and holler at their cows, never to much good effect, as far as I can see

Ivan Pavlov and one of his dogs

Now, back around the time my old grandma Kate was born, a Russian fellow named Ivan Pavlov was doing some interesting work with dogs. He had noticed that his dogs always started salivating when he showed them some food. Next, he started ringing a bell every time he fed those dogs, and dang if after a while they didn’t start salivating at the sound of the bell, even when he hadn’t shown them any food. The interesting point here is that an oral cue can result not only in a behavioral outcome, but a physiological one, too. Not only that, but those behavioral and physiological response are tied to memory. Perhaps my mother’s cow was salivating; hard to tell. But clearly, the oral cue of my mother’s voice was enough to stimulate the cow to calmly walk into the barn. And keep in mind that she couldn’t see the oats: she was responding to memory, the memory of a happy event in her past.

So, hearing a specific sound can have an extremely strong behavioral effect on cattle and dogs (and probably every one else). A specific oral signal can be quite easily used to modify behavior, especially in cattle. Cattle have pretty modest eyesight, but pretty big floppy ears, and they hear pretty darn well. Their brains spend a lot of energy trying to figure out the world by listening to it. Perhaps that’s why people have been calling cattle for a long, long time.

As an example, Jonna Jinton demonstrates in the video below how cattle come to kulning, an ancient Swedish herder’s call to cattle. She says, “In the In the middle of the bright summer night I went out to call for the cows. I thought that maybe, something deep inside them, remember the sounds from the ancient times when people called for them over far distances. They came running, together with a million mosquitos.”

If Sweden seems too far away – here’s an example of kulning in the U.S. west.

Meanwhile, back on the prairie…

When I went to visit my old grandmother some forty years later, I got to observe her beating on that old tin bucket and calling the cow each night, although her voice was deep and gruff with a hard Ukrainian accent. Even so, the result was the same: the cow always came to her call.

Learning to Call Cattle

Early in my ranching career, I reached a point where it was clear that I needed a radically new and different economic model. Part of that revolution included marketing my cow-calf herd (including a few of cows that had been trained by my old mother). The permanent cow herd was sold off, replaced by a transient population of custom-grazing cattle and auction refugees. And none of these cattle knew a thing about coming to call.

It soon became apparent I had become a bit nonchalant when it came to this facet of stockmanship. I liked the ease and efficiency of moving cattle through a grazing system without the bother of saddling a horse, buzzing around on an ATV, or prodding bovines with sharp sticks and curses. But now, here I was with bunches of cattle that had no idea what I was wanting them to do. Clearly, I needed to learn how to teach cattle to come to call.

I started out by just trying to make friends with the newly-arrived cattle. This was pretty interesting and often entertaining. I sat in a folding chair near the water tank and read the newspaper. I drove through the herd with the windows down, playing country-western music. I walked back and forth on the gravel road next to the receiving pen, reciting unprintable limericks and Robert Service poems. Some of this was at least marginally effective, as the cattle soon calmed down and accepted my bizarre behavior as simply another part of their new world.

I should note here that most of the cattle I work with are not re-cycled 4-H pets. Many of our custom cattle come from the desert and have never seen a human on foot before. My auction cattle are purchased one at a time, and many of them have had unsuccessful relationships with their former owners. Some of them are just plain bad.

Making friends with the new cattle was a good step, but it didn’t get me very close to having them trained to come to my call. A big ah-ha moment came when I took on some particularly difficult, un-socialized cattle early in the year, a month or so before grazing turn out. I had found a great deal on some rough hay and found a way to market it by feeding some bad cows. On the first day, the cattle bunched up in the corner of the hill pasture, watching suspiciously as I drove the feed truck into the field. When I began flaking the hay out, a few of the cattle began walking uncertainly toward me. I remember watching those few brave cows and thinking: “Great, I can train them to come to hay. How does that help? I need them to come to my call.” So, just to see what would happen, I began calling to those cows while the truck drove forward. Immediately, the cattle stopped dead in their tracks and watched, listening intently, their heads shaking and their eyes rolling in their sockets. Clearly they were perplexed, but because I was not threatening them, they just stood and watched. Eventually, one brave soul stepped forward and walked up to the closest flake and began eating. Soon enough, the other cattle drifted over and began eating. Meanwhile, I continued calling and calling, all the while tossing out more feed.

The following day I began calling the cows the moment the truck entered the field. This time, a few cows quickly began walking toward me. By the fourth or fifth day, most of the cattle automatically began walking toward the truck as soon as I started calling them. I don’t know if they were salivating in response to my call, but their behavior had clearly been changed.

I continued spending time with the cattle, just wandering around on the edges of the pasture, letting them get to know me. Frankly, this part was a bit more difficult. Turns out, when cows have been trained to view humans as predators, there are some hard feelings to overcome. But training them to come to hay (by call) really wasn’t all that hard.

By the time our grass was ready for grazing, most of the cattle in this group had accepted me as a goofy, but socially neutral part of their life. They recognized my truck, and would come to my call if they could see hay in the back of the truck. We were getting close to the goal of having cattle trained to come to call, but there were still some hurdles to get over. I needed those cows to willingly follow me, on foot, through gateways, across paddocks, down lanes, etc. Basically, I needed them to do whatever I asked them to do.

My next step came on the final day of hay feeding. I drove the feed truck into the middle of the pasture, stopped and tossed a bale of hay out, called the cows and drove ahead. The cows flocked to the hay, as always. Then I made a loop, drove back and collected the hay bale, then drove forward and repeated the process. Within a few minutes I was able to call the cows and have them simply follow the truck wherever I wanted to go. Eventually, I fed them their daily ration, but only after they willingly followed the truck without any hay being fed.

On turnout day, I drove into the feeding pasture, called the cows, and calmly led them through the gate and into the first grazing paddock. Some of the more difficult cattle balked momentarily at the gate, but as soon as the majority of the cows had left the field, even the most spiteful old gals just followed along. The next day I left the cows in that first grazing paddock a bit longer than I wanted to. There was very little grass left, and they were a bit hungry. When I drove into the paddock, the cattle looked at me curiously, but as soon as I began calling, they fell in line behind the truck and followed me to the gate and into the next paddock.

After a few more paddock moves I parked the truck in the next paddock, got out, and walked to the gate. Some of the cattle didn’t like this much, others were pretty neutral. After opening the gate, I began walking backward toward the truck, calling the cattle while I walked. Success! And in a very short time the cattle were following me (on foot) from paddock to paddock, attuned to my call. As time went on, I exposed them to more complex, difficult moves such as following me through an un-grazed paddock to reach another paddock, or going around corners or through swamps or tree groves. After a while I didn’t need to show them the truck. I just arrived at the paddock, let them observe me for a few minutes, and struck out in the direction I wanted them to go, calling them along behind me.

So, successfully training cattle to follow you from paddock to paddock can be fun and interesting. It involves patiently building a relationship based on trust, and a general understanding of basic positive reinforcement and bovine psychology.

However, one remaining issue is the requirement for spending a substantial amount of time in the training process. Sometimes, we simply do not have the luxury of spending weeks getting a group of wild cattle trained up. In part 2 of this series I will share some techniques for quickly training transient cattle to follow.

Happy Grazing!

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  • Published: 2 weeks ago on November 27, 2017
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  • Last Modified: November 27, 2017 @ 10:51 pm
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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.

5 Comments

  1. Patrick Tobola says:

    John,
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    I would like to emphasize a couple of important points that you made for someone who wants to use this method. First you should use the feeding time to build trust with all of the animals and to teach the animals to behave as a herd. They all need to learn to move together and all come to the hay before you start teaching them to follow the hay and then they all need to be taught to follow the hay. This is especially important with pairs. Second, when you start to train them to follow and later come to a call they should come calmly and wind up at a walk. It’s ok for young animals to buck and play and trot a little. Many people make the mistake of training their animals to come excitedly at a run to save time when moving them. This is not good for the animals and can lead to some undesirable behavior like rushing to a gate when they see you enter a pasture. It can also result in young animals becoming separated from their mothers during moves which can lead to other problems. I think the safest thing to do to prevent this is to be relatively close to the animals when you first start to train them to come to the call and then close to them when you start training them to follow a call (like you stated in the article) so you can control their speed as you lead them and only then try to call them from a greater distance if you want to train them to come to you from a distance. One other thing that is probably important is you should put out enough feed and in such a way that all of the animals can comfortably get at least a taste of the feed and not be frantically searching and fighting over a few morsels. If you will use something like supplement cubes, you may need to feed more of it at a time and spread it out more so all of the animals can get to it and remain calm.

  2. jason detzel says:

    this is a great piece and i love how you worked the principles of operant conditioning into the discussion

    I do have one thing to say. I am the owner operator of my ranch so the cattle get used to me really quickly (consistency is key to the relationship). Occasionally I have to go out of town and another person will do my chores. I ask them to wear a baseball cap like I wear so the cattle don’t notice form afar that things are amiss.

    The other thing I do is train the cattle to a non verbal call. My animals are used to my wacky call but others have a hard time reproducing it. By having a bell or a mechanical noise, the employee can utilize the tool and keep the moves consistent and as stress free as possible…unless you lose the bell in the field like I usually do by mid summer.

  3. red says:

    Cow bell hung on the truck to call them works. Better than Dad when he was a kid, calling milk cows out of the brush. He and the neighbor kids yodeled at them (Pennsylvania, oh my 🙂 Tho the cows all grazed one unfenced pasture, the cattle always went to the right kids. Good article and a Merry Christmas.

  4. Chip Hines says:

    Like most ranchers and farmers I had a call to cows for feed in the winter. After I got my fencing set up for planned grazing and the cows knew what was going on, I decided to try the winter feed call. It worked!

  5. curt gesch says:

    I’m glad to read that even if one’s voice–like your grandmother’s–deep and gruff it can work to call cows. For a minute there I thought I had to learn to sing soprano.

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