Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Paddock Design and Stockmanship – Thinking It Through

Editor’s Note: John Marble runs a seasonal grazing operation. That means he doesn’t over-winter cattle, and,each spring, he’s working with a new batch of cows, calves, and custom grazed steers. Because these animals are unfamiliar with managed grazing, he’s developed techniques that make it easy to work with and move them. This month, we’re taking a look at how he thinks through human and animal behavior and what he’s put together as a result.

Thirty years ago I was a young rancher, struggling to find my way in a tough industry. I was saddled with a heavy debt load, boundless energy and a vision of someday owning a hundred cows.

Back then (as now) I leaned heavily on friends for help and counsel. My first mentor was my old pal Duane. One day Duane pulled into the yard and asked if we could go look at the cows; he didn’t have to ask twice. I pointed the way across the creek and down a dirt track that led to a brand new cross fence that I wanted to show off. As we approached the gateway he smiled and nodded at the prickly strands of barb wire and the solid H-braces.

“Nice lookin’ fence. Sure hope you put in another gate, though. This one here, right in the middle of the run, well, it’s gonna be tough to drive cattle through it”.

It was with a bit of pride and some relief that I pointed down toward the corner of the field: of course I put in a gate at the corner. Everybody knows you have to do that. How could you ever force cattle through a gateway if you didn’t have a fence on the side to help?

Two decades later, I had to stop and chuckle as I found myself contemplating doing some repairs on that same corner gate. Here’s the funny part: in all of those intervening years I could only recall using that gate twice, both times with recalcitrant bulls that were just plain knuckleheads. Meanwhile, the gate in the middle of the run, the one that Duane had cautioned me about, it seemed I moved cattle through there every week or two, cattle coming and going as they moved through the grazing system.

I thought of Duane once again as I led a pasture tour for my local grazing group. The property we were looking at has a very conventional paddock layout (see Figure 1), one that had evolved over the years. As I had increased the number of paddocks over time, adding more cross fences, the paddocks had become very long and narrow; not the best design for grazing. Also, the back 1/3 of the property was laid out as a wagon wheel, a design I had significant reservations about. Imagine my surprise when my tour guests ignored these trouble spots, instead complaining about the lack of gateways leading from my lane into each paddock. How could this possibly work? How could I get my animals from paddock to paddock if I didn’t have gates?

I decided the best way to clear up this issue was simply to leave the lane and walk deep into a paddock. Once there, I pointed out that each paddock did, in fact, have a gate for entering and leaving, but that the gates were placed mid-run, rather than in the corners. I will never forget the response I received from one of the folks in that group:

“That will never work!”

There were plenty of heads nodding in agreement. The interesting thing to me was that many of those paddock fences and gates had been in place for twenty years or more, and they did, in fact, “work” every day. Later that afternoon we spent some time at the white board, making poor drawings of cattle, fences, gates and herders. What follows below is a result of that conversation, along with some thoughts about paddock design, animal behavior and human psychology.

First, a Big Idea for you to consider:

Decisions about where to place gates, lanes, water sources, etc., are in large part a function of how you decide to relate to your livestock and what you want them to do. In short, how you lay out your fencing depends on how you handle your animals. Your chosen method of herding, your stockmanship style, should greatly influence the design of your grazing cells.

Next, a couple of my observations on cattle behavior. Cattle are fascinating, complicated animals when it comes to behavior, just like humans. Turns out, cattle suffer from two basic behaviors that are sometimes in conflict with each other. Consider this:

Herd Behavior: cattle are a bit like Yak or baitfish. When threatened or pressured by a predator, cattle tend to clump up, move closer together, and act as a group. We call this “herd instinct” and this desire to be part of a herd greatly influences how cattle act when we pressure them, (as when we are driving them to a different place, for instance).

Personal Space: cattle, like humans, desire a bit of personal space. If you observe cattle under no-stress conditions, you will note that they will be walking, grazing, sleeping with a significant buffer zone between them.

These two tendencies: trying to be with the group and trying to be separate are always in play, with the outcome being determined by how much stress (pressure) is being applied by a predator or a herder. The more pressure, the more herd behavior. The less pressure, the more independent/personal space behavior.

Figure 2 shows a standard approach for beginning to drive cattle from one paddock to the next. In this illustration I have shown three herders on foot, but the same pressure could be applied by a single mounted rider, multiple riders, herders with dogs; it doesn’t matter. The herders bring pressure to bear on the scattered cattle and begin moving the cattle toward the gate.

The next step is shown in Figure 3, where the cattle are pressured to leave the open field. The response to this pressure is to form a herd and begin moving away from the pressure (the herders). As the herd is moved toward the corner of the field (and the gate) the cattle become bunched more and more tightly together, following their herding instinct.

Figure 4 shows what happens as the leading edge of the cattle herd actually passes through the gate: the animals are released from pressure and they immediately begin to spread out. Because the leading cattle are beyond the fence, protected from the predator/herder, they revert to the desire for personal space.

Interestingly, the greater the degree of stress the cattle were placed under in order to force them to and through the gate, the more extreme their reaction will be once they are through the gate. In the field, you will note that when highly stressed cattle are forced through a gate, rather than moving quickly ahead down the N/S fence line, the cattle immediately move west and spread out as quickly as possible. And here is where the trouble starts.

As the leading edge cattle are forced through the gateway, they quickly turn left, seeking personal space. Observe here that the cattle are actually moving toward the western-most herder. Obviously, the desire for personal space is greater than any fear of the herder who is on the other side of the fence. Next, the cattle that have not yet been forced through the gateway observe the now-freed cattle moving west, so they begin to turn west and attempt (due to herd behavior) to move west with the freed cattle. And so, the wreck is on, as shown in Figure 5.

The herder on the western flank of the herd must now apply even more pressure to the cattle herd to prevent them from moving west. This pressure results in even higher level of stress on the cattle and at some point, radical behavior ensues. Cattle will sometimes reach the breaking point, panic, and run through the herders’ picket line. They charge west, trying to remain in the herd with their sisters in the northern paddock.

So, what caused this wreck?

I believe a combination of the natural behavior of the cattle (the conflict between the need for personal space and herd instinct) and a paradigm problem among the human herders: people like to control cattle. We seek dominion over the animals. Luckily, we can work on the human side of these problems.

Rather than controlling cattle, a radically different approach would be to observe natural cattle behavior and adjust our infrastructure and our stockmanship to accommodate or even accentuate that natural behavior. My version of this is leading cattle instead of pushing them, and using middle-of-the-run gates.

Changing gate location alone is not the answer

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.

Leading Cattle

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/herding 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!

Thinking About It

Here are questions you can ask yourself to practice thinking through your own livestock moving challenges.

Should I go out and change all my gate locations so I can be like John?

Hmm…Will that work for me? Or is there something about his understanding of cattle behavior that I can use to my advantage to work with what I already have?

John says, “Decisions about where to place gates, lanes, water sources, etc., are in large part a function of how you decide to relate to your livestock and what you want them to do. In short, form follows function. How you lay out your fencing depends on how you handle your animals. Your chosen method of herding, your stockmanship style, should greatly influence the design of your grazing cells.”

How do I relate to my livestock?

How often am I the swearing guy who shows up in Figure 5? Why does that happen? What is one thing I can change that will reduce my need to swear?

What is easier to change – my paddock design or my behavior?

Next up: Tips for turning your livestock into happy followers. 🙂

Leading Instead of Herding – Why and How to Teach Your Livestock to Follow


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John Marble
John Marble
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.


  1. How do you go about teaching them that you lead without using a bunch of feed? I have cows that will easily come but many who will not follow and are very standoffish (I am culling them this year)

  2. A resounding “yes” to leading cattle. With only a few cows and small paddocks I also walk the perimeter with them which seems to put them at ease.

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