Thursday, June 13, 2024
HomeLivestockBehaviorCalling and Leading Cattle is More Time and Cost Efficient Than Herding

Calling and Leading Cattle is More Time and Cost Efficient Than Herding

To start, I’d like to thank my neighbors Ken and Debbie for inspiring this study. Ken and Debbie raise “stock dogs.” This provides me with endless hours of entertainment during the pleasant evenings of spring and summer as I listen to the strange commands, whistles, and threats that float across the pasture. They sound like they’re really having fun. (Well, most of the time.)

So, when Debbie asked if I could help at a little dog trial they were putting on, I said, “You bet.”

The work was easy enough. All I had to do was sort off small groups of yearling calves and maneuver them into position for the next dog to work.

Late in the afternoon Debbie stopped by to ask if I was planning to stay for the barbecue. Actually, it wasn’t so much a question as a command. I looked up at the sun, made some mental calculations and said, “Gee, I don’t know. I’ve still got some cattle to move.”

When they found they couldn’t help me, the disappointed handlers returned to herding ducks with their dogs.

I was immediately surrounded by three dog handlers, leashes in hand, asking if I needed some help.

“Well, no, not really,” I said. To their questions, I explained that no, we don’t have dogs, horses, motorcycles

“We just sort of work ‘em on foot.”

Later that afternoon as I drove back to the barbecue, I found myself thinking about the dogs and the handlers and wondering how it is that I get our animals moved without dogs, horses, or machines. In fact, I typically move cattle with no help at all. On this afternoon, I had moved three groups of cows by myself and still had time to make it back to the party.

As I thought about the action I had seen at the dog trial and compared it to what I’d just done in my own field, one striking difference became clear: most of the time and effort expended by the dogs and handlers was spent pushing the stock. In contrast, I generally lead cattle (by walking in front of them) into the next paddock.

This got me to thinking about livestock handling in general and caused me to consider a basic question:

Which style of livestock handling is more efficient: Leading or Following?

No offense to the dogs or their owners but based on what I’d seen that morning and what I’d done myself that afternoon, it seemed obvious to me that leading animals requires much less time and energy than herding animals. Also, based on the huge amount of time people spend moving their animals around, I decided this efficiency issue was a topic that deserved a bit more attention.

Setting Up a Study

In the world of science, problems are solved by following a pathway something like this:

Observe a phenomenon
Develop a hypothesis
Devise a test
Gather data
Prove/disprove the hypothesis.

I already had a hypothesis: Calling and leading cattle is more efficient than herding cattle.

As for devising a test, I was faced with a problem: the only measurement I could make is the amount of time it takes for me to lead a group of cattle from one paddock to another. I have no control group of cattle to move by herding, and it would be difficult or impossible to set up such a group.

Instead, I decided to simply measure the time it took me to move cattle (calling and leading time) and try to come up with some estimates of how long it would take to move them via herding.

The First Test: Calling and Leading Time

I developed the following routine for measuring calling and leading time:

On the day a herd was to be moved, I parked the truck approximately 50 yards from the gate leading to the next paddock. I would then start the stopwatch, walk to the gate, open it, walk a short distance into the paddock, call the cattle, and lead them into the next paddock. (This is the point where the leader needs to think about simply getting out of the way.)

Then I closed  the gate and returned to the truck, clicked the stop watch off, and recorded the elapsed time.

The Second Test: Herding Time

I based the measurement of herding time on this concept: the bigger the paddock, the longer it will take to push cattle out of it, regardless of whether you are using dogs, mounted riders, or herders on foot.

I reached this conclusion by asking a few of my cowboy friends a simple question: “Does it take you longer to clean out a big pasture than a little pasture?” The uniform answer was “Well of course, dummy!”

Not very scientific, but now at least I had a second hypothesis to work with: herding time is positively correlated to paddock size.

Now I needed to develop a baseline of herding time and paddock size. Here’s what I did:

After recording the elapsed time for calling and leading, I would restart the stopwatch, walk to the gate, open it, briskly walk around the perimeter of the paddock, return to the gate, close it, return to the truck and record the elapsed time. I called this “Perimeter Walk.”

My interest in the “Perimeter Walk” data is based on the notion that there is a direct correlation between the distance around a paddock and the total size (area) of a paddock. But I also need to include some data showing the relationship between perimeter walking and a typical herding pattern. Once again, I turned to my cowboy friends, asking them to draw a typical pattern they would need to ride to clean out a paddock. We began by marking a spot on the map about 50 yards from the gate, just like my starting point for “Leading time” in the exercise above. This Herding Pattern diagram approximates their herding suggestions.

Checking My Assumptions: Is Perimeter Walk time Comparable to Herding Pattern Time?

This is where things got interesting. Using a simple ruler, I measured the distance around drawings of various paddocks (perimeter walking) and compared this to the distance covered by a herder following a conventional herding pattern.

In every case, perimeter walk and herding distances came out nearly the same.

One zig or zag more or less typically meant that the herding distance was 5% more or 5% less than perimeter walk distance. This suggests that the distance around a paddock is approximately equal to the distance traveled by a herder using conventional herding techniques.

In short, Perimeter Walk Time = Conventional Herding Time


Here are the timed results of ten cattle moves Leading, ten Perimeter Walk/Herding times and the percentage difference between the two activities, or what I call the “Inefficiency Ratio.”

Field Test Number
Calling and Leading (min/sec)
Perimeter Walk/Herding
1 4:18 6:55 1.61
2 3:28 6:14 1.80
3 1:52 9:05 4.86
4 13:33 38:14 2.82
5 1:15 6:33 5.24
6 5:35 8:40 1.55
7 1:35 13:11 8.34
8 2:51 19:14 6.75
9 2:24 7:46 3.24
10 1:47 8:32 4.79
Average 3:51 12:26 3.22


The data indicate that leading cattle is substantially more time efficient than herding cattle. This study suggests that on average it takes 3.22 times as long to herd animals as it does to lead animals. Also, readers should keep in mind that the comparisons above only represent the time and expense of a single herder on foot. If we want to factor in the expense of using dogs, horses or – perish the thought – motorcycles to herd with, the expense differentials will become much more radical. I recently watched a group of cattle being moved to a new pasture. In the field were about 75 cows, four mounted riders and three dogs. It was sort of pretty to watch the riders, horses and dogs all working together, but I couldn’t help but wonder at the efficiency of the operation. Maybe they needed all those people and dogs to help process the cattle when they got to their destination. I suspect they were all having a good time, and that’s great. But comparing the true cost of that sort of herding effort to the cost of one man on foot leading cattle into the next field could be a scary experience.

Our history is full of stories of cattle drives and cowboys. Is it time to think in a new way?


Like all scientists do, I’ve shared my hypothesis, my assumptions, and my methods so that others can replicate this study with improvements where they see possible weaknesses with my work. I’m sure some of my Western friends are complaining, “Sure, you may be able to teach those dang old 4-H pet cows of yours to follow you around, but out here, we have to work with real-life cows.”

Here I would point out that the animals used for this study were part of a set of custom-grazing cattle that grew up under rough management in rough country and they were about the worst-mannered cattle I’ve ever been around. They’d been on the ranch for about two months prior to this study. On shipping day, this same set of cattle followed me through seven gateways, across an unfenced right-of-way, through a swamp, and into corrals.

The decision to equate “herding time” with “perimeter walking time” may also be difficult for some readers to accept. In truth, I believe that the “conventional herding pattern” I used is actually a very conservative estimate of a real-world herding pattern. I believe observation of a single herder might actually result in a herding pattern several times more labor intensive than the pattern I used.

Another concern readers might have about this study is the relatively small acreage of our pastures. Surely calling and leading does not work on the large scales that many western ranchers work. I’ll let Kathy Voth respond to that in her piece this week showing how it has worked for her on 500-acre pastures and larger.

I am a huge fan of the modern animal handling techniques and behavioral work done by Bud Williams, Temple Grandin, and others, and we use those techniques quite often. However, we primarily use them in the corral and sorting pens. When it comes to moving cattle in the field, we simply teach the cattle to follow the leader.

The truly important analysis here revolves around some fundamental questions that every rancher needs to ask and answer.

• Am I interested in performing tasks in the most efficient way possible?
• Am I interested in saving time and money?
• Am I willing to absorb the extra labor costs associated with herding activities by calling them recreation? Is culture more important than profit?

Training cattle to follow a leader (rather than be pushed by a herder) is a process that requires a bit of patience and time, but it’s fairly enjoyable work. I’ll cover my own training method in this month’s The Thinking Grazier. For many, the training can be tied in with normal Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) operations, requiring only a modest amount of additional time (and often yielding some great entertainment!) Properly trained cattle repay the MiG manager very quickly for the training effort. Ultimately, training cattle represents a tremendous savings in time, energy, and effort. Additionally, I believe that if herdsmen would pay attention, they would find that MiG naturally trains cattle to move (follow) whenever and wherever a herder desires. Leading cattle is simply another facet of controlled grazing.

Happy Grazing!


Here’s More!

John has incorporated leading into how he sets up his fences too. For more, check out his August Thinking Grazier article:

Paddock Design and Stockmanship – Thinking It Through

Next, here are John’s tips for turning your livestock into happy followers.

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


And a note from John

When Kathy headed into retirement in September of 2022, I told On Pasture readers: “Keep an eye out for opportunities to read some bits of my fiction. Many of my stories are about people like you: folks who are struggling to survive and thrive in rural America. Kathy is my editor and we’re working away on one set we hope to have ready for you this fall, with others following after.”

Well, it’s fall of 2023, and Kathy and I finished our project. Chicken Dinner at the Steak House is available in paperback and Kindle book on Amazon. We hope you’ll enjoy it!

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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. Great study John! I will certainly be sharing it. One idea I might add, using something like a bell or whistle allows anyone to move the animals. This summer I even trained a herd of heifers to come to a Viking Horn just for the fun of it. I don’t know why more people don’t adopt the practice in our area because it saves so much time and hassle when getting animals out of bush pastures?
    Thanks for the article John

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