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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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