Wednesday, June 19, 2024
HomeLivestockBehaviorHappiness is Being in the Herd

Happiness is Being in the Herd

Whit Hibbard has great way of explaining the mechanics of Low Stress Animal Handling. If you haven’t read his articles yet, here’s a link to the Special Collection of his On Pasture articles. It will be well worth your time! My praise for Whit is not because I want to blow smoke up his butt. I don’t even know the guy. It’s just that I have been trying to explain these concepts to friends, employers, and summer students for close to 20 years and I don’t think I’m any more effective than where I was years ago. When I realized my handling skills were better than my explaining skills, I decided to work on my handling skills rather than my teaching skills.

One of the skills I have developed is the ability to create a herd (when I use the term herd I also mean flerd, mob, or flock). When I first began grazing, I thought the animals were a herd because they were grazing in small paddocks. But, just because animals are in the same proximity does not mean they are a herd; it just means they are grazing the same grass. The basic premise of creating a herd is to teach animals that their favorite place to be is with their buddies. It is creating an environment where being alone is unnatural. So again, here I am, attempting to explain what the heck I am doing. I will do my best.

My goal with each group of animals I handle is to train them to drive, turn, stop, and work as a unit. Whit explains very well how to drive, turn, and stop and he also explains how to teach individuals to stay with the group. It is this last skill where we differ a bit in our approach.

This is Lon Chaney as the Wolfman, not Tom. 🙂

Whit has explained a method where you become an annoyance to the animal that leaves the herd. I, on the other hand, am very aggressive when training ‘bunch quitters’. In my mind, I become a wolf whether on foot, riding a horse, driving a pickup, or driving a 4-wheeler! So you should probably stay out of my way! LOL

The notion of becoming a wolf comes from observing videos of barren lands caribou, wildebeest, and personal observation of a wild herd of bison in Northwest Territories, Canada. Caribou, wildebeest, and wild bison are trained by the predators that their survival depends on staying with the group. The slow learners are picked off pretty quickly.

The bison herd I observed knew the importance of staying with the group because besides observing bison, I also observed a number of wolves in the area. As the herd moved past our remote work site, each individual stayed in close proximity of the group. The young bulls were fighting and cavorting about, but always moving down the cut line within 20’ of the group. It was also at this time, I saw natural herd effect in action for the first time.

Once we had our equipment set up we went to camp for supper. When we came back, the herd had moved into our work site and ‘occupied’ the joint. We could not take a step without stepping on a bison track. There were only ~50 animals in that herd, but talk about herd effect!

This episode greatly influenced my thinking about how animal handling can affect grass management. Many people think bison naturally herd. However, the tame herds I have seen do not behave in the same manner as the wild herd in NWT. This further confirms my belief that herding-up is something that needs to be learned. So now you may be asking yourself, “How do I become a wolf?” The following explanation is how I do it.

For this example, let’s assume I am riding a horse. I believe a fit, well trained horse is most effective for this endeavour. With a new group of animals I first assess the flight zone. Depending on the previous history, some groups will have a large flight zone while others will barely budge from your pressure. With a large flight zone, you might need to stay 100 feet or more to gather them. With a small flight zone you may need to ram them to create some momentum. I will not deal with the specific mechanics of how to gather because Whit does a very good job. Just be cognizant that flight zones are individually specific.

When gathering a new group of animals, it has been my experience that there are always bunch quitters. Those individuals must be pursued by ‘the wolf’. To become a wolf, I create a rage within me. I am angry, tense, loud, fast, and probably pretty scary to be around. I pursue each bunch quitter with this high level of energy and direct them back to the herd. Once they get to the edge of the herd I immediately stop my horse and drop my energy. Read that last sentence again because it is critical to your success. If you or your horse will not do a hard stop and immediately settle, training bunch quitters becomes much more difficult.

The process of increasing your energy then dropping it back down is not a natural skill. It takes intention and practice. Like any skill, though, with practice comes proficiency. After a couple years, regulating your energy will become a natural phenomenon. If you stay consistent with the approach I just described, you will have a working herd within 2-3wks (assuming moving two to three times per week). If you stay aggressive and consistent, you will have a hard-bonded herd within a few months.

Being consistent is very important. I know it can be a pain in the butt when you have plans and a cow decides there is better grass in the opposite direction. If you get after her at that moment, there will be fewer and fewer instances of that happening.

There are a number of benefits having a well bonded herd. The first benefit is that moving becomes very easy. Many times I have moved over 600 animals myself or with a friend. I vividly remember my daughter at 12 years of age helping me move 950 heifers 3.5 miles down a county road to a new paddock. The herd plodded along four by four and was strung out for ¾ mile. (She was so sweet and helpful back then. Sigh!)

Benefits of Creating a Herd

There are other benefits that don’t present themselves in such an obvious way. First of all, when animals become a herd they affect the soil with their impact and you don’t have to do any fencing to create that impact. Like the Northwest Territory bison at our work site, when animals stay close together every patch of ground gets affected somehow. This happens without any additional fencing. Another benefit is that animals figure out how to work together.

When animals understand they are part of a group, their behavior changes and I’m not sure of everything that will happen.

A few winters ago, I noticed a herd of dry cows walking around a paddock in a tight group. It was very odd so I went to investigate. The herd was walking together to break the crusted snow into small chunks so they could get to the stockpiled grass. It was amazing to witness. I have no idea how those cows figured out how to work together! Here’s the video I took showing what they were doing. It was windy and cold that day, so I apologize for the shakiness.

I have seen cows walk from a waterer, through a paddock full of bale grazing bales, back to the herd in another paddock of bales. If it was one cow this would not be of note. However, it was a steady stream of cows going to water over the course of three hours. Another time I left a gate open by accident as I scrambled to sort out a water failure. About 100 pair out of 400 traveled through four paddocks to a dugout, drank, and then came back to the herd. Those animals walked through ‘ice cream’ quality grass to get back to the herd. I just find this behavior amazing and the more I witness, the more I am convinced of the efficacy of what I am doing.

The final benefit I notice is also the coolest. When your animals are truly living as a herd, they birth within the group. There are no animals wandering off to give birth on their own.  It is just like what you would see watching caribou calving beside the Beaufort Sea. Unfortunately, my video camera has disappeared otherwise I would share my own National Geographic documentary with you.(lol) This past spring, I did notice an anomaly though. Five times during the first cycle of calving, a group of 6-8 cows walked away from the herd to have their calves. Each time there was one matriarch standing watch while the others all calved within a couple hours. Very odd, interesting, and I have no idea why.

Training animals to act as a group does take dedication and consistency. But, yes, the benefits are certainly worth the effort. It has been my experience that different species can be trained in the same manner I have described. In fact, multi-species can be trained to bond with each other and behave as a single mob. I realize the ‘Wolf Method’ is not low-stress. However, this method is only used during the training phase. Once you truly have a herd, though, handling becomes a joy and a wonder!

Tom runs a mob of cattle, saddle horses, sheep and hogs. Here’s Part 1 of his series describing how it works and what he’s learned. Stay tuned!

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Tom Krawiec
Tom Krawiec
Tom, along with his wife Jan, started raising & direct marketing hogs, sheep, cattle, turkeys, & chickens in 1999, the same year they completed a Holistic Management course. Their operation slowly morphed into custom grazing cattle on rented land and Tom’s passion for managing grass grew in the process. Tom & Jan completed the Ranching for Profit school in 2003 and found the ‘missing piece’. Since then, Jan has fulfilled her dream of being a nurse & Tom is currently the Production Manager of a ranch in north east British Columbia.


  1. Tom, thank you for the article.
    We would like to try a hair sheep and cow herd on a year around basis.

    Do you have a guard dog for the sheep in the mix?
    Happy trails, Mike

    • Hey Mike. We had a guardian when we first started then let her age out once the sheep were truly bonded to the cows. I did read an article in another magazine talking about a fellow in Colorado who did not use dogs because his sheep were bonded. It think it depends on your predator pressure. I do know, though, because of neighbours etc, it is a lot easier running without guardians. Good Luck! Remember, there is no try, only do!lol

      • Thank you Tom.

        Our cows are Corrientes. They are protective.

        The reason we haven’t yet given the hair sheep a go is we weren’t sure we wanted to deal with a guard animal and having it get along with the cows. Most folks here in southern Missouri use guard dogs.

        There is a neighbor who is using a llama.

        No try, only do or do not. 😉

    • Hi Oogiem. My belief with animals is that most behaviour is individually specific. By that, I mean, how an animal is handled & treated dictates its behaviour. That being said, almost all my sheep experience has been with Katahdins so I am not an expert on various breeds. ‘The Wolf’ method has worked with the sheep I have managed although it takes longer with barnyard sheep. Barnyard sheep are ones that have been treated like pets. The same issue arises with horses that have also been treated like pets. Often I find that what we think of as fact, is actually only the way things are now. In terms of sheep: 1) I was told that sheep can’t paw through snow. Not true. We have had sheep paw through 18″ of snow;
      2) Sheep only like short grass. Not true. If given the chance they top graze just like cattle. It may be that sheep like short grass because that is all they have to graze. Also, maybe that is why parasites are such a problem.
      3) Katahdins don’t gain well. Not true. Katahdin lambs consistently get to 110+lbs in 5months in multiple environments.

      • Ours are Black Welsh Mountain. They are not pets, but I can walk up to many of them on pasture. We pasture lamb. Our sheep have been part of reproduction research for over 13 years developing non-surgical AI so handled a lot but they do not flock. They are very calm for Welsh Mountain Sheep. The video below is from 2011.

        Trying to get them to bunch up is difficult, they expand to fill the available pasture and ewes do not keep their lambs at their sides all the time. They behave more like deer or cattle. They will park the lambs and go forage then come back to them. They will also typically form family groups and all the related ewes will put their lambs in a creche with the least dominant ewe acting as a babysitter. Then the res of the ewes go foraging. When a lamb is hungry and baas or a ewe has a full udder they call to each other. You’ll see lambs and ewes racing across the pasture to find each other and nurse and then go their separate ways. Sometimes they can’t find each other and I’ve observed the babysitter ewe going out to find the dam of the screaming lamb and bring her back to the creche to feed it. Some very closely related sheep, typically twin sisters or even different age sisters will share in the care of their lambs and will, in a pinch, feed their relatives’ lambs, at least a sip or two, until the mom can be found or comes back. Ewes without close family relatives in the flock make up a “single mothers” creche and recruit one of their number, usually a mid dominant but not the lowest on the scale, ewe to watch their lambs. Non blood relatives have never been observed feeding strange lambs.

        We move them every 1-5 days and I use a call to get them to come. they also know a few basic commands, Open Gate, causes the lead ewes to look for where I am pointing my crook and head for it. That allows us to “open gate” anywhere in a fenceline and they will go to it. Some of them know their names, they don’t necessarily come up to us but when I call out to them they will turn and look at me to see where I am pointing. I can direct them that way. However, I never try to push them. Push or try to get them to bunch up tightly and it’s like hitting billiard balls, they will run and scatter and get very upset. For us at least it’s far better to train them to come to us and I never really try to drive them.

        • Very interesting Oogiem. I have never heard of that breed. Could you post a link explaining non-surgical AI?
          In regards to flocking, it is my assertion that animals should be trained to drive, turn, stop, and flock before they are trained to follow or be called. I know not everyone is of the same mind set. In my experience, though, when a group is trained to maneuver, I am able to move them wherever I want, when I want. My anxiety level becomes very high if I have to rely only on the animal’s decision to come or follow. It is similar to having an untrained dog. I am very uncomfortable leaving the property before my dog is trained. However, when the dog has a solid recall and hard down I am able to confidently take my dog anywhere. Finally, if you do decide to train your sheep to drive, start when the ewes are dry because driving young stock is a very tricky procedure.

  2. You are almost there in your technique. First let me state that since we eat livestock they should never feel like they are on the menu that day. Your wolfman approach should be rethought. Second all communication with livestock should be nonverbal. We all have “bunch quitters”. The thing is you should have a read on them before they take off. Just let them go, and then quietly walk parallel to them. They will stop and go back. Repeat this a few times, some others may take off with them but that’s OK just repeat walking parallel with them until they stop and go back. Very soon the entire bunch will stay together and take pressure more evenly. No need for a few weeks, a fit horse (not even a fit human) and certainly not a predator prey relationship.

    Good luck

    • I appreciate your observations of nature and your application of those observations to the way you manage your livestock. It seems like you’ve had some interesting experiences, no doubt. Overall, it seems like you are managing your livestock handling quite well. However, I have to agree with Doug, that you can have similar results without a different method.

      I never want my stock to think of me as a predator. My concern is that if any of them get it in their mind that I am a predator, they may decide that I am potential threat to them or their calf, and charge–particulary during the first few days after calving when cows seem quite sensitive.

      Also, livestock, like people respond to positive emotions/experiences by producing the feel good hormone, dopamine. When they feel good, they are less likely to get sick, and more likely to stay happy, healthy, and gain/producing at optimum levels.

      Instead, Doug’s suggestion would work. Another slight variation that I use is from Steve Cote, author of Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Rangeland Management, suggests walking directly behind a bunch quitter–this is the only time he suggests doing so, because cattle do not like being folllowed/pressured by something they cannot see, so they will turn around to see what’s pressuring them. Once they turn they will realize that they are no longer with the herd, and want to go back to them. At that point, let them do so, by stepping clearly out of their way. Then give them a little time, about 30 seconds or so, to let it sink in that the herd is the safe place to be before you commence herding the group. I’ve had good luck with that method in developing a herd mentality.

      One comment regarding the term “low stress” it’s actually ok to put a fair amount of stress or pressure on livestock, as long as it is removed from them properly. They can handle significant pressure for a short time, without negative consequences, if they know that pressure has a release.

      I look forward to your future articles and insights.

      • Hey Paul. Thanks for your input. I understand & have used the technique’s you have suggested. I know what you suggest works. It has been my experience, though, that ‘The Wolf’ method is more effective & powerful. By powerful I mean it creates a stronger herding bond. That being said, I may change my approach 10 years from now because I am always looking to improve.
        Your concern about having a cow become aggressive is actually the opposite. For some reason, cows that are known for aggression settle down and no longer charge in the pasture nor when being handled in corrals. Of course, this again is just my It appears Kathy will be publishing a few articles about handling multi-species and in the second article, I deal with handling new-borns. It is a technique I call the ‘Wave’ which is quite similar to a method Whitt employs. With the ‘Wave’, I incorporated a verbal command five years ago to let the group know if we are moving or if I am just checking.

    • Interesting tone in your response Doug; almost patriarchal.
      When I presented this article to Kathy I knew it would be controversial. Aggression is not something taught when I was first introduced to Bud Williams Low -Stress Handling in 2000. Since then, the groups of animals handled has grown from 40 cow/calf pair & 30 ewes to 400+ pair, 300+ ewes, and 800+ yearlings. As I transitioned from small groups of animals to larger groups, my handling evolved as well. It was no longer feasible to walk and gently coax animals to stay with the group; there were simply too manly bunch quitters on too many acres. Once I began using a more aggressive approach, I noticed positive results. Since then I have become more convinced in the efficacy of my approach. You really find out if you have a herd when the fences are gone!
      On your other point, it is not my experience that all animal handling should be non-verbal. The groups I deal with get trained to come to a whistle, bell, or voice once they know how to herd. Further, when the group is a ‘true’ herd, a simple ‘Hey Boss!’ is often all it takes to get a cow walking back with the herd. It may smell like BS, but I have seen it happen time and time again where I am 100′ away from a cow who decides she wants to go in a different direction from the herd. When I call out ‘Hey Boss!’ she immediately changes her direction back to the herd. It feels like I am scolding the cow for bad behaviour & she knows she has been bad.
      Thanks for your input and like wise, Good Luck!

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