Cattle Handling Part 1: Basic Cattle Handling
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
The key to handling cattle with the least problems is to train them to the way you need to work with them, such as being easy to handle on foot. Acquaint them with new procedures gradually, in a non-confrontational manner (just like training a horse). Introduce a new experience slowly. Put them in the corral a few times, or into the chute, without doing something unpleasant to them. If their first experience in a chute is painful (vaccination, dehorning) they may balk at going in there the next time. Walk them through a chute calmly, before they have to go in it for a painful procedure. If you live in a climate where you might have to put a cow in the barn to calve, gently herd your heifers into the barn (using a calm older cow to give them confidence and a feeling of security) or lure them in with feed, before you have to put one in there when she’s in labor for the first time and nervous and upset. Spend time walking quietly among your cattle in their pen or pasture when they are young, to get them used to people in general and to you in particular.
Moving and herding cattle: The easiest way to move cattle — from pasture to pasture, into the corral, or down the road to another farm — is to lead them rather than drive them. Cattle that trust you will come when you call, and follow you anywhere. They know from proper training and past experience that every time you call them you’ll feed them or take them to a new pasture. If they are rewarded with a bit of feed, they are always easy to move. Even if you are taking them into the corral, a few flakes of good hay can be their reward for willingly following when you call.
If you’re moving untrained cattle and have to herd them rather than lead them, do it quietly and with patience and they won’t get excited and try to run off. If cattle become alarmed they are much harder to handle because they instinctively start thinking about getting away (as from a predator). They’ll run for the brush to hide or to a hole in the fence, or even crash the fence. They may not be thinking clearly enough to see the gate where you want them to go. Or, they may quickly make up their minds to NOT go through the gate into the corral because they’ve had a bad experience in there — and your pressuring them has aroused their survival instinct for flight.
The principle behind calm, efficient cattle herding is simple; don’t force them or alarm them. Put gentle pressure on them — approaching from a direction that encourages them to move away in the proper direction — and give relief from pressure when they do move. Calm cattle will let you approach fairly close and then they will start moving away.
Flight zone: A cow has a certain amount of space in which she feels secure. This imaginary circle of space is much larger for a wild, insecure individual (she starts to move away from you before you get very close) than it is for a gentle, tame animal. A calm, tame animal will let you come quite close before she moves away, and a pet may have no flight zone at all, letting you come up and touch her.
When herding cattle, put pressure on their flight zone to encourage them to move. Your position in relationship to their body or to the herd will dictate the direction and speed they go. If you approach directly from the side, at a position behind the shoulder, they should move straight ahead. If you travel alongside them, they will continue moving until you get too far forward (near the front of the herd, or more forward than the shoulder of an individual animal) and then they will halt. If you approach the flank they will start moving again, or speed up. You can start them moving or make them go faster by coming closer to their flight zone. When they go the proper speed or direction, ease up (staying a little farther away from them) as a reward, and don’t press closer again unless they slow down too much or stop.
If they understand what you want them to do, and you give them time to figure it out (and to realize there IS relief from pressure when they cooperate), cattle are very easy to herd. Pressuring and release of pressure at the proper times will encourage them to move (or halt) and to go the direction and speed you desire. The herd will also stay together, moving as a group (rather than splitting and running in all directions) if you herd them calmly and don’t get them upset and excited. Best results are had when you move them at a walk, and stay out to the side of a herd, controlling the speed and direction of the leaders. The others will follow if the herd stays calm and relaxed.
Low stress sorting: Sometimes you need to sort a group of cattle, as when weaning calves off the cows, sorting off an animal to treat for illness or injury, sorting steers from heifers when selling a group of calves or weanlings, etc. It’s easiest to sort in a small corral so the animals can’t run off — quietly moving the desired animals through a gate into another pen or letting some out into a pasture and leaving the ones you want in the corral. It always helps, however, if you have two pens for sorting, so that if the wrong animal gets past you and runs through the gate, it will still be contained in a pen and hasn’t gotten away into a large field.
When sorting cattle, it’s easiest in small groups so you have room to maneuver in the corral. If you have a large group to sort, split the group and sort half at a time — if you have a spare pen to hold the extra ones. When sorting a group, give cattle time to figure out what you want them to do, so you can encourage them to move toward the gate or chute without stress and commotion. Speak quietly and move slowly, to not upset them — giving the animal a chance to choose the proper direction or to see the gate.
Use their flight zone to advantage, stepping closer to them or backing away to influence the direction of their movement. When letting some through a gate and holding others back, put pressure on the ones you want to hold back and give more room to the ones you want to let by, to encourage them to move through the gate. If an animal is moving in the proper direction, do not chase her or prod her; she should not be punished for doing the right thing. Never poke or prod a cornered animal that has no place to go.
Don’t leave an animal in a pen by itself after you’ve sorted off the others. Even if it must stay by itself (to await the vet, or to be butchered), leave a companion animal with it, or in a pen next to it, for company — so it won’t become excited and frantic.