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

Last month in The Thinking Grazier, John Marble got us thinking about our relationship with our animals and how behavior (theirs and ours), along with our fence and infrastructure, factors into getting them to do what we want them to do. Then last week, he concluded that leading was more efficient and cost effective than herding.

This week he’ll show us how he thought through his method for teaching them to follow him by taking a trip back in history – his own and some science history too. 

Dateline: Raub, North Dakota, circa 1935

Kids were an important part of many farms.

My mother was born on the harsh prairie of the Dakotas, into an emigrant family that believed children should contribute to the welfare of the family, and that contribution was to be in the form of chores. After riding home from school (on a horse, not a bus) my mother’s first chore was to go to the milk shed and pour a scoop of oats into the feeder, then walk out to the top of a small rise behind the barn and call the family milk cow. For this task, she brought along an old tin bucket and a well-worn stick. In her high-pitched girl’s voice she would call out, then beat the dickens out of that bucket. When the cow wandered dutifully into the shed and put her head in the manger my mother would slide the wooden stanchion closed and my grandmother Kate would commence with the nightly milking.

This little story is important because it demonstrates two important concepts. First, cattle – like most every other mammal I am familiar with – are pretty easily trained using positive reinforcement (a few oats, in this case). Next, cattle easily associate sound with some sort of positive outcome.

Ivan Pavlov and one of his dogs

Now, back around the time my old grandma Kate was born, a Russian fellow named Ivan Pavlov was doing some interesting work with dogs. He had noticed that his dogs always started salivating when he showed them some food. Next, he started ringing a bell every time he fed those dogs, and dang if after a while they didn’t start salivating at the sound of the bell, even when he hadn’t shown them any food. The interesting point here is that a sound cue can result not only in a behavioral outcome, but a physiological one too. Not only that, but those behavioral and physiological responses are tied to memory.

Perhaps my mother’s cow was salivating; hard to tell. But clearly, the sound of my mother’s voice was enough to stimulate the cow to calmly walk into the barn, even though she couldn’t see the oats. She was responding to a routine and the memory of a happy event in her past.

So, hearing a specific sound can have an extremely strong behavioral effect on cattle and dogs (and probably every one else). A specific sound can be quite easily used to modify behavior. Perhaps that’s why people have been calling cattle for a long, long time.

As an example, Jonna Jinton demonstrates in the video below how cattle come to kulning, an ancient Swedish herder’s call to cattle. She says, “In the In the middle of the bright summer night I went out to call for the cows. I thought that maybe, something deep inside them, remember the sounds from the ancient times when people called for them over far distances. They came running, together with a million mosquitos.”

If Sweden seems too far away – here’s an example of kulning in the U.S. west.

Learning to Call Cattle

Early in my ranching career, I reached a point where it was clear that I needed a radically new and different economic model. Part of that change included selling my cow-calf herd (including a few of cows that had been trained by my old mother). They were replaced by a transient population of custom-grazing cattle and auction refugees.

Now, here I was with bunches of cattle that had no idea what I wanted them to do, and I was going to have to figure out how to get them to come when I called. This was especially challenging because most of the custom cattle come from the desert and have never seen a human on foot before. Also, my auction cattle are purchased one at a time, and many of them have had unsuccessful relationships with their former owners. Some of them are just plain bad.

Step 1 – Making friends

I started out by just trying to make friends with the newly-arrived cattle. This was pretty interesting and often entertaining. I sat in a folding chair near the water tank and read the newspaper. I drove through the herd with the windows down, playing country-western music. I walked back and forth on the gravel road next to the receiving pen, reciting unprintable limericks and Robert Service poems. Some of this was at least marginally effective, as the cattle soon calmed down and accepted my bizarre behavior as simply another part of their new world.

Step 2 – Give them a reason to come

Making friends with the new cattle was a good step, but it didn’t get me very close to having them trained to come to my call. A big ah-ha moment came when I took on some particularly difficult, unsocialized cattle early in the year, a month or so before grazing turn out.

I had found a great deal on some rough hay and found a way to market it by feeding some bad cows. On the first day, the cattle bunched up in the corner of the hill pasture, watching suspiciously as I drove the feed truck into the field. When I began flaking the hay out, a few of the cattle began walking uncertainly toward me. I remember watching those few brave cows and thinking: “Great, I can train them to come to hay. How does that help? I need them to come to my call.”

So, just to see what would happen, I began calling to those cows while the truck drove forward. Immediately, the cattle stopped dead in their tracks and watched, listening intently, their heads shaking and their eyes rolling in their sockets. Clearly they were perplexed, but because I was not threatening them, they just stood and watched. Eventually, one brave soul stepped forward and walked up to the closest flake and began eating. Soon enough, the other cattle drifted over and began eating. Meanwhile, I continued calling and calling, all the while tossing out more feed.

The following day I began calling the cows the moment the truck entered the field. This time, a few cows quickly began walking toward me. By the fourth or fifth day, most of the cattle automatically began walking toward the truck as soon as I started calling them. I don’t know if they were salivating in response to my call, but their behavior had clearly been changed.

I continued spending time with the cattle, just wandering around on the edges of the pasture, letting them get to know me. Frankly, this part was a bit more difficult. Turns out, when cows have been trained to view humans as predators, there are some hard feelings to overcome. But training them to come to hay (by call) really wasn’t all that hard.

By the time our grass was ready for grazing, most of the cattle in this group had accepted me as a goofy, but socially neutral part of their life. They recognized my truck, and would come to my call if they could see hay in the back of the truck. We were getting close to the goal of having cattle trained to come to call, but there were still some hurdles to get over. I needed those cows to willingly follow me, on foot, through gateways, across paddocks, down lanes, etc. Basically, I needed them to do whatever I asked them to do.

Step 3 – Make them work for it a little.

My next step came on the final day of hay feeding. I drove the feed truck into the middle of the pasture, stopped and tossed a bale of hay out, called the cows and drove ahead. The cows flocked to the hay, as always. Then I made a loop, drove back and collected the hay bale, then drove forward and repeated the process. Within a few minutes I was able to call the cows and have them simply follow the truck wherever I wanted to go. Eventually, I fed them their daily ration, but only after they willingly followed the truck without any hay being fed.

On turnout day, I drove into the feeding pasture, called the cows, and calmly led them through the gate and into the first grazing paddock. Some of the more difficult cattle balked momentarily at the gate, but as soon as the majority of the cows had left the field, even the most spiteful old gals just followed along. The next day I left the cows in that first grazing paddock a bit longer than I wanted to. There was very little grass left, and they were a bit hungry. When I drove into the paddock, the cattle looked at me curiously, but as soon as I began calling, they fell in line behind the truck and followed me to the gate and into the next paddock.

Step 4 – Show them that I’m part of the truck they’ve been following.

After a few more paddock moves I parked the truck in the next paddock, got out, and walked to the gate. Some of the cattle didn’t like this much, others were pretty neutral. After opening the gate, I began walking backward toward the truck, calling the cattle while I walked. Success! And in a very short time the cattle were following me (on foot) from paddock to paddock, attuned to my call. As time went on, I exposed them to more complex, difficult moves such as following me through an un-grazed paddock to reach another paddock, or going around corners or through swamps or tree groves. After a while I didn’t need to show them the truck. I just arrived at the paddock, let them observe me for a few minutes, and struck out in the direction I wanted them to go, calling them along behind me.

So, successfully training cattle to follow you from paddock to paddock can be fun and interesting. It involves patiently building a relationship based on trust, and a general understanding of basic positive reinforcement and bovine psychology.

Now, here’s how to speed up this process.

Sometimes, we simply do not have the luxury of spending weeks getting a group of wild cattle trained up. Clearly, I need a technique 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.

Here’s the sled, with a hay bale and the inspirational flat fish lure.


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 untrained cattle onto a grazing paddock, I wait until they have eaten most of the forage 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, most 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 sound 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 sound 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!


Thinking About It

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

Is there something my animals are already doing in response to a call or sound that I can take advantage of to turn them into followers?

Maybe it’s the sound of a 4-wheeler, a tractor or a truck horn. How can I use what they’re already doing to encourage a new behavior?

Check out Kathy’s post here to see how she got cows to come across a 500 acre pasture with a truck horn and a little feed.

Why do I think I have to herd animals? Is it a requirement? Or is it simply cultural?

What happens if I reconsider “the way things have always been done?” What if I could just call and my animals would come?

How much time (=money) could I save if the cows came when I called?

Would it be more than the time/money I spend training them? John’s hypothesis is that you’d save money. Read more about his study on the topic.

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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. The flatfish story is delightful and weird enough to appeal to me. It reinforces my belief that learning occurs when one associates two otherwise different things. Thank you for sharing these tips.

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