Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Heather Smith Thomas

Cattle can be readily trained for ease of handling, if you understand how they think. They are adaptable, and have excellent memories. They never forget a bad experience, and you can "ruin" a cow or a herd for future ease of handling if you abuse them or destroy their trust. The stockman who handles cattle in a calm and patient manner will have much calmer, more managable cattle than the person who chases and rams them around and gets them excited.

Shaping the cow herd to be quiet and easily handled is like training a horse; introduce new things in a calm, confident and positive way--working with their natural ways of thinking rather than against them. They respond to release of pressure, for instance, and force is always counterproductive.

Because of their adaptability they can be readily trained to be handled on foot or with horses, and also with 4-wheelers or dogs. But most people lack the patience and cow sense to handle cattle properly with 4-wheelers--hurrying them too much--and few people have the skill (and dog training ability) to handle cattle with dogs. Improper use of dogs defeats your purpose and makes cattle more wild, or puts cows on the fight in their instinctive drive to protect their calves.

Cattle move willingly, however, when they trust and respect you and are trained to your methods. If you will be working them horseback they need to get used to a rider; if you will be handling them on foot, walk among them often. Flighty cattle are a little easier to handle on horseback, just because they feel more at ease with a horse (since it's not a predator) and you can usually get a little closer to their flight zone. The most manageable cattle are those that have been handled properly from an early age -- at ease with how you handle them. If the only time they see you is when they are chased into a corral for branding/vaccinating, they likely won't want to go in there again.

If you handle them properly, however, one or two people on foot or on horseback can move a single cow or group of cows anywhere, any time. It helps a lot (speeds the process) if you've worked with them before--trained them to trust you and be readily managed. The easiest way to gentle a group of steers or replacement heifers is when they are weanlings, if they haven't already been made wild and unruly by the way the herd was handled when they were calves. Calves take their cues from their dams. If the cow doesn't trust you and is wild and flighty, her calf will be also.

The handiest way to gentle a group of weanlings or yearlings is with feed; they quickly learn to come to the feed truck or feed bunk, and associate you with food. Take it a step farther, and walk or ride among them. Otherwise they may flee like a flock of birds if you get out of the truck or show up with a horse and dog.

Take time to walk through them or along the feed line, speaking softly or humming. Move slowly and stay relaxed, to put them at ease. Give the timid ones as much room as they need, so they won't run off. Ignore them and don't look at them directly or they will think of you as a predator and become nervous. Cattle instinctively know when a predator is on the hunt or just passing through. Cows hardly pay attention to a coyote wandering through the herd, but immediately become alarmed and protective if they feel their calves are in danger. If you take the time to casually walk through them every day until they are accustomed to you and the timid ones have become at ease with your presence, you'll find them easier to work with later on.

If you march briskly and stare directly at an animal, it will become alarmed. But if you leisurely stroll, avoiding eye contact, keeping your attitude mellow and non-threatening, cattle tend to stay relaxed. A relaxed animal is much more manageable and can be herded without getting upset and running off. Once it becomes alarmed, a fight or flight reflex kicks in and you won't have much influence on directing its movement if you're trying to herd it. A nervous, frightened animal won't see the gate you want it to go through; all it can think about is getting away from you. If you keep cattle calm, however, they can be herded anywhere you want.

The secret to moving cattle, whether on foot or horseback, is working at the edge of their flight zone, using advance and retreat methods (pressure and release) to influence their direction and speed. Each animal has it's own space in which it feels safe. If you come closer than they're comfortable with, and penetrate that imaginary boundary, the animal will move away from you. This bubble of security, or flight zone, is much larger for a wild or suspicious animal than for a trusting animal that knows you and is not afraid. Nervous or excited cattle have a larger flight zone than they do when they are not upset.

When trying to move cattle without stressing them (and hoping to get them where you want them to go without them running off and getting away from you), pay attention to the flight zone and the animal's body language and intentions. Always approach quietly and slowly, giving the animal or the herd plenty of time to see you and realize you are not a threat. It's best to approach from the side, where they can easily see you. Don't approach them head on (this is confrontational and puts them on guard) or from directly behind them. Cattle have wide angle vision and can see in all directions, but have a blind spot directly behind them, blocked by their body. If you come upon them from behind they may spook; if you come upon them from directly in front they may get nervous. Startled animals usually take off; their instinct is to run first and ask questions later. If you approach from the rear, they may run off, or turn to face you so they can keep you in their field of vision.

When working cattle in an enclosed area like a corral or alley, remember that a confined animal may become more nervous and her flight zone may become larger. If you get very close she may become agitated. If you invade her space when she is cornered she may panic and try to jump the fence or run over you to get away. If cattle become upset when pressed, back up a little to stay out of their flight zone so they can stay calm.

To move a group of cattle in a field or pasture, approach from the side. Walk or ride on the edge of the flight zone, penetrating it to get them to move. If you come at them too close to the front of the herd or the cow, they may move too abruptly. Get them moving in a calm manner and then keep your position correct (relative to that of the herd or the individual cow) to influence speed and direction. When they are going the right way at the right speed, hold back a little to reward them for proper movement and only press closer again if they stop or need to be turned.

To move a cow forward, approach from the side (behind her shoulder). If you approach her ahead of the shoulder area (her point of balance), she will turn away or back up. To keep her moving forward, stay out to the side and at the edge of her flight zone. If she slows or stops, move closer to encourage her to move. If she starts going too fast, ease off until she slows again.

Gentle cattle can be easily handled by one person, but it always helps to have two people if you are moving them very far or trying to bring them into the corral. One person can walk or ride alongside the leaders just behind their point of balance and the other moves alongside and/or behind the herd when needed, in a fluid position to keep the rest of the herd coming or to keep some individuals from trying to go between the front and rear person. When handled properly, you rarely have to chase cattle; you can influence their direction by keeping proper distance to acheive the proper response. The person behind the herd can zigzag back and forth if needed, to put more pressure on the stragglers so they will speed up and stay with the group.

When taking cattle a long ways, let them drift at their own speed in a long string rather than in a big wad. It's their nature to travel single file, following a leader. They will go much more willingly (pairs mothered up)--and you'll get there a lot faster than if they are in a tight bunch. In the latter situation they often balk or mill around, with no leader. If the leaders are going the proper direction, the rest of the herd will follow.

If you're trying to direct a group of cattle or single animal to a gate, or to the herd when gathering strays, go slowly and give the animal time to pay attention to its surroundings rather than being totally focused on trying to get away from you. If an animal is calm, it will notice the open gate or the other cows in the distance and head that direction. If the animal is upset, however, it may not see its herdmates, or may run right past the gate or try to run back past you because it didn't see the gate and doesn't want to be "trapped" that close to the fence. Always stay in tune with the animal's mental attitude and work accordingly, backing off when necessary to avoid triggering alarm.

Almost anyone can get animals moving, but it takes more skill and "cow sense" to stay in tune with the animal or herd and direct it where you want it to go--slowing, turning or stopping. It pays to perfect this skill, however, so you can always have control over the actions of the cattle, moving them from pasture to pasture or into a corral with a minimum of labor, time and effort, and less stress on the animals. Handling them with little or no stress ensures that they will handle well in the future.

Safety Concerns -- Most accidents happen when trying to force an animal to do something it doesn't understand (and it panics or startles). Even a gentle cow may kick if you come up behind her suddenly. A nervous cow will kick if she feels threatened when you get too close. Some become insecure when being worked roughly and are apt to panic or become aggressive.

You can usually predict a cow's actions by her body language. Her head and neck will indicate the direction she's about to go, since she's front heavy and relies on head movement for balance. If she drops one shoulder slightly, she's about to turn to that side. You can also tell from her eyes and head position whether she's frightened or angry. Rapidly moving eyes usually indicate nervousness and fear whereas a steady stare indicates aggression; she may be about to charge. Shaking her head or pawing is a warning gesture. If you move, she may charge. Lowering the head usually means she's about to charge and hit you. A head held high indicates fear or nervousness--ready to run.

If an animal makes aggressive gestures, hold your ground or back away slowly, but don't run. Aggressive cattle will charge at movement. If you have nowhere to escape, stand still and project your most dominant thoughts. When working at close quarters with potentially aggressive cattle (like cows with young calves), have a stout stick. This not only gives you a weapon that might stop a charging cow (if you rap her smartly across the nose or face) but gives you the psychological upper hand. Most cows hesitate to charge if you have a weapon, and they also sense that you are more confident. In a herd situation cattle establish pecking order; a dominant individual intimidates a more subordinate herd member and the latter will back off without trying to fight. If the cow perceives you as dominant, she will be less likely to attack.

The key to avoid being hurt by cattle is to handle them properly (low stress tactics), with less likelihood of getting them frightened, upset or on the fight, and to handle them enough to train them so they know you and know what to expect from you. If cattle trust (less fear) and respect you (less likely to try to intimidate you in close quarters when working in a corral or when you have to handle their calves), they are relatively easy and safe to handle. It helps to select for calm, intelligent disposition when keeping or buying replacement heifers. Any wild and unmanageable cows should be culled.


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