Cow-calf commentary: Shipping calves

KIMBALL, Neb. – As the sun rose on Sunday morning I was gathering cattle and heading them toward the home place corrals. I was quite tired, having spent the preceding 16 hours on my feet at my town job, but the morning was crisp and clear. Nature’s beauty filled me with awe and wonder and gave me a needed mental and physical boost.

When I say crisp and clear, I mean the ambient temperature was 25 degrees and the air was crystal clear and still. The lovely, golden-red glow in the east had erupted into brilliance as the hot, white sun peeked over the horizon. Nighttime darkness fled from the sky and new rays of brilliant sunshine began chasing shadows across the frosty prairie grass.

Where the sun’s rays fell, frost flashed quickly to vapor and for a few minutes the cows and calves were wreathed in a glowing, smoke-like fog. The beauty of such moments is hard to describe and even harder to capture with a camera.

The cattle were frisky Sunday, as is often the case on crisp, clear, autumnal mornings. They were just about perfectly located for gathering; far enough away from the corrals to run a bit and kick up their heels and get the friskiness worked out of their systems, but not so far they would trail out and take a long time to gather.

I felt a warm glow of satisfaction as the cows and calves began to funnel into the lead-in alleyway. I spent a lot of time and even more physical and mental effort into redesigning this alleyway over the summer. My intent was to make the pathway more open and organic, with fewer angles and even fewer places for shadows to gather. The cattle moved in without hesitation and moseyed through the new pathway as if they were used to the experience.

Removing the angles and shadows had been, I thought, an important change. With the former set-up, we always struggled to move cattle around corners, and unsurprisingly, across shadowed areas, where they always seemed to balk.

It all makes perfect sense from the perspective of the cattle. They are herding prey animals. They congregate in large groups, and with eyes located toward the sides of their heads, they have a wide field of view and very acute, dichromatic distance vision. This makes them very good at spotting potential predators.

But, with vision optimized for spotting predators at distance, they give up a lot of near-visual acuity and depth perception. Living on the prairie, they are unaccustomed to navigating narrow alleyways and tend to bunch up when they find a corner. To our human eyes it’s easy to see the corner opens on another alleyway, but to the cattle it appears they’ve simply come up against a fence.

A complicating factor is the way the autumnal sun casts shadows and the way such shadows are seen by animals with two-color vision and very poor depth perception. You and I can make out fine details of the ground even when the sun casts strong shadows. But then, we have eyes on the front of our heads, binocular vision, and excellent depth perception. Cattle do not. Where we see perfectly solid ground in shadow, the cattle see little more than a very dark patch which looks to them just like a hole on the ground. As you might imagine, they are reluctant to navigate such a potential hazard until they’ve had time to investigate more closely and satisfy themselves they will not tumble down into a hole.

Once the cattle had flowed into the corrals it was simple to sort the cows from the calves. Simple, that is, if the sorter understands the what and why of cattle behavior. The way they respond to potential predators is the key to cattle handling in general and to low-stress handling in particular.

Cattle don’t automatically flee potential predators. If they did, they’d be constantly galloping across the landscape. To a cow; a fluttering plastic bag, a man, a pickup truck, a bear, a wolf – all are potentially predators at first sight.

Rather than flee at first sight, cattle assess the threat level and behavior of potential predators before taking the action they deem appropriate to remain relatively secure.

If a potential predator is spotted at long distance, cattle will simply keep an eye on it and wait to see how things develop. They’ll also alert the rest of the herd to the presence of the potential predator through visual, rather than audible, communication.

This communication system is nothing more than body language, but it’s intricate and complex, and in many ways quite beautiful. A change in posture. A slight raising or lowering of the head. A particular switch of the tail. A quiver of musculature along the back or flank. The flicker of an ear. It looks meaningless, even superficial. Yet those cues can alert every cow scattered across a square mile, turning their attention to a single object faster than you can scan the horizon.

Familiarization with such “cow talk,” with those visual cues, is a big part of low-stress handling. It’s part of what’s called “reading” cattle. It takes time, study and experience to even begin to be able to read cattle.

Another important part of reading cattle is understanding that, while they’re instinctive herding animals, the herd isn’t a homogeneous unit made up of identical parts. Cattle group together for many reasons, including for the level of individual safety that comes with numbers. But, even though they group together as a collective herd, each animal is an autonomous individual.

The key to low-stress cattle handling is to understand the vageries of cattle behavior, as well as their body language. With this knowledge it’s possible to guide the movements of cattle. Which is a very different thing than “driving” them.

Guiding cattle works through the application of mild, indirect pressure – by moving inside the animal’s’ comfort zone. When the handler violates the comfort zone, the cattle respond by moving away until they’ve reestablished their comfort zone. If the pressure was mild, the cattle move slowly and calmly. If the pressure was too vigorous, the cattle flee.

Cattle – both in groups and as individuals – have different sized comfort zones that depend on the situation, just as people have different comfort zones under different circumstances. For instance, you might feel perfectly comfortable sitting next to a complete stranger in a movie theater, yet be very uncomfortable if the same stranger stood as close to you in an empty parking lot. In the theater, you would stay in your seat. In the parking lot, you would move away from the stranger.

“Pushing” the cattle by moving too quickly or by pushing too far inside the comfort zone will cause the animals to feel threatened and become excited or stressed. It takes time and experience to learn where the line is drawn between guiding and applying stress. One useful tool is called the “rule of stop.” To put it simply, if an animal stops, turns sideways toward or looks directly at the handler, it’s time for the handler to stop and wait while the animal(s) adjust their positions relative to the handler back to a comfortable one.

The comfort zones of cattle are smaller in a confined area and they are more sensitive to comfort zone violations. This is where reading body language, having the patience to take your time, and heeding the rule of stop can make the difference between quietly sorting cattle or having a full-fledged rodeo.

It took me about 90 minutes Sunday to sort the cows from the calves. It was a quiet and peaceful exercise. I let the cattle do most of the work. 

As always, it was astonishing to see how simple it is to guide quiet, non-stressed cattle. For the most part I was able to do the sorting from a nearly fixed position, with most of the cows quietly flowing past me and responding to my own very slight motions and movements. In many cases both cows and calves responded to eye contact alone.

When the sorting was done I turned the cows out, and when the truck arrived we loaded the calves for their journey to the sale barn. It wasn’t quite that simple, but the load out is a story for next week, perhaps.