Teaching cattle to come to call is pretty easy. It takes time and patience, but it is not all that hard. Here’s the problem: sometimes, you just don’t have that much time. In Part 1 of this series, I talked about receiving cattle and working with them for quite a long time, developing a relationship, training them to come to hay, training them to associate a positive experience (eating) with an oral cue (Kulning). Fine. But sometimes I receive cattle that are delivered directly onto grass. There is absolutely no “warm-up” period where I can get them socialized and trained up. What now? Clearly, I need a technique that will allow me to get cattle to follow me around with very little actual training.
The answer came to me one day while I was fishing. I was casting a flatfish lure –a bit of plastic shaped like a banana—and I was watching fish following the lure. It struck me that many fish are virtually compelled to follow that lure, even fish that have no intention of eating it. For instance, sometimes fish that are much smaller than the lure actively follow it. There is something about the wiggle-waggle movement of the lure that simply drives fish of all sizes and types to follow that lure. I began thinking about what a cow lure might look like.
My secret weapon for training fresh cattle to lead: The Sled.
The Sled is a very simple, inexpensive and wonderfully effective tool for training cattle to come to your call. My sled is made from an old a sheet of aluminum siding about six feet long. I attach it to the tail end of my truck with an old piece of rope. Here’s how I use the Sled:
When I receive a new batch of un-trained cattle onto a grazing paddock, I wait until they have eaten the majority of the feed and are getting a bit hungry. I load the sled and a bale of hay into the truck and drive into the field. I like to leave the tailgate down so the cows can see the hay. I drive around for a bit, trying to get the attention of all of the cows. Then I stop and toss the bale to the ground. Better yet, I bounce-roll it a couple times, then load it back into the truck and drive around a bit more, then repeat the process. My point here is to really get the attention of the cattle, and here’s one thing I typically see: even in the most recalcitrant, nasty group of cows, it seems there is always at least one cow that knows what a bale of hay is, and that cow will frequently begin following the truck. When I have the attention of the cows, and especially a helpful leader, I stop, toss out the sled and place the bale of hay on the sled. I secure it in place with a bungee chord or some baling twine, then begin driving in circles, plowing slowly through groups of cattle. The sled creaks and groans and fishtails like a slalom racer. The cows typically go insane. Soon they will be racing along with the truck, snorting and bucking and trying to figure out what to do with the sled. It smells like hay, looks like hay, but the visual stimulation is beyond their ability to comprehend. Soon enough, the majority of the cows will be following me in big slow circles around the field.
This is an absolutely critical point: as soon as the cattle are following the sled, I begin calling them. Even with the visual distraction of the sled-lure, there is something about the oral cue (kulning) that gets through those thick skulls. After driving around aimlessly for a bit, I head for the next paddock and lead the herd through the gateway.
Of course, these cows aren’t trained to come to my call, but they are a bit closer than they were. I frequently need to practice like this for several paddock moves, then switch to just placing a bale on the tailgate, without even using the sled. Soon after that stage, the cattle will simply come to my call, the reward being fresh grass in the new paddock. Eventually, these cattle will come to my call without a sled or a bale of hay. Our relationship is still pretty lean; I am not their best friend. But for short-term, transient cattle, the important thing is that I can quickly get them into the habit of rotating through the grazing system and coming to my call.
Hints for Training Cattle to Come to Your Call
General good stockmanship rules always apply.
Even if you are using the power of the Sled, you still need to maintain a calm, quiet demeanor. For the most part, play it cool and basically ignore new cows. Try not to stare at them.
Develop a call or select a noise that you use only for calling cows.
I know people who have trained cattle to come to a police whistle or a truck horn. You should use whatever is most comfortable. I prefer to use the human voice as it is always with me and never fails. Also, I can change the volume or inflection as desired.
All of this cow calling will likely drive your neighbors to distraction, of course.
The sight of a herder, on foot, leading a group of happy, contented cattle just doesn’t sit well with some folks. But as a friend of mine observed, “If the neighbors don’t think you’re crazy, you’re probably not trying hard enough.”
Never, never, ever call the cows except when you are leading them somewhere.
I occasionally call and lead cattle when I need to move them into the corral, and that’s fine. But if you simply call the cows each time you happen to be in the area, or just to show off for your friends, you will dilute the training and cause confusion. Don’t cry wolf!
One advantage of training the cattle to an oral cue is that the visual cue of you or your truck becomes less important.
It’s handy to be able to drive through a pasture and not have the cows mob the truck when all I’m doing is passing by. Train the cows to your call, not your presence.
Keep in mind that you do not have to train all of the cattle to come to call.
Early on, some of them will probably hate you too much; that’s OK. If you can convince a small minority of your cows to follow the truck or the sled or to come to call, you will soon be moving cattle easily. Try not to focus on the spiteful or wild individuals. They will come along in their own time.
If you are having difficulty getting cattle to follow, or even just to move, keep in mind one basic truth of cattle behavior: movement begets movement.
Slowly walking or driving through a herd of cattle will often stimulate them to get up and start walking.
Have modest expectations about change.
It may take quite a few moves to get your herd acceptably trained. Try stopping at the gate for a few minutes before opening the next paddock. Try making a big circle or two before leaving the paddock. Experiment. Keep calling
When you have your cattle trained to come to call you will gain some really neat advantages aside from the efficiency of not needing to hire help or horses or motorcycles.
You will get to actually enjoy walking across your grasslands, looking at the ground, the plants, the wildlife, and practicing your kulning. Look for hawks! Watch your cows walk! Get some low-impact exercise!
Have fun, and happy grazing.