Working with cattle


The other morning, I had a cow and calf out. They weren’t really out, just on the other side of a four-wire fence in an adjacent pasture. There was no break in the fence or loose wires, so it was a bit of a head-scratcher, but cows and calves can worm through a fence with relative ease if they really want to. They weren’t hurting anything, and they had plenty of food and good water over there, but they really needed to be back with the herd.

To get them back in I could open one or another of two gates and herd them through with my pickup. Or I could drop the fence wire to the ground and push them through the temporary opening. The problem with the first solution is that to reach either gate I’d have to initially push the pair away from the herd, and that’s tough and stressful on all concerned. The problem with the second solution is that dropping wire and putting it back is kind of a chore. More importantly, cows often don’t like stepping over wire.

In this kind of situation, the “can-do, I’ll take care of it” attitude really needs to take a back seat. There’s almost always a way to work with cattle rather than impose your human will on them. I decided to check the rest of the cattle and think about the best solution while I did so.

In this case, while I was checking the rest of the herd the pair in question gave me a big assist by relocating themselves to within 500 yards of a gate. By the time I got over there I had only to open the gate and they trotted through smartly and hoofed it on over to rejoin the herd. The seemingly complex task became a simple matter of getting out of the way. There’s a good lesson there if you think about it.

Learning to understand cattle is the first step to being able to successfully work with them. So, what are some of the important things to understand?

Cattle are herding prey animals. They congregate in groups, and with eyes located toward the sides of their heads, they have a wide field of view and very acute distance vision. This makes them very good at spotting potential predators. The way they respond to the threat is an important key to cattle handling.

Cattle don’t automatically flee threats. If they did, they’d be constantly galloping across the landscape. Rather than flee at first sight, cattle assess the threat before taking the action.

If it’s far away they keep an eye on it. If it’s moving toward them, they will move away when it crosses into their comfort zone, which will vary in size depending on the situation. If the perceived threat closes quickly and aggressively, they will enter “fight/flight” mode.

Cattle, both as groups and as individuals, have different sized comfort zones, depending 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.

Another important key is to understand that while they’re instinctive herding animals, the herd isn’t a homogenous 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.

To successfully work with cattle a person should understand most of the how and the why of cattle behavior, and be familiar with (though not fluent in) their non verbal form of communication. With this knowledge a person can guide, rather than drive, cattle.

Guiding cattle works through the application of mild, indirect pressure, by moving inside the animals’ comfort zone. When the herder 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.

“Pushing” the cattle by moving too quickly or by pushing too far inside the comfort zone will cause the animals to 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.

To get back to my example from this morning, I could tell that the cow and calf were anxious to get back to the herd, which they could clearly see a half-mile away. Experience told me that while I could probably push them toward either of the gates, moving them away from the herd would make them anxious and perhaps trigger their flight mode. I didn’t want to do that. Neither did I want to drop wires. Aside from the labor I preferred not to do, cattle don’t like to step over wire. Why is that?

It has to do with their vision. Cattle have a wide field of view and possess excellent distance vision. This is in part due to the wide spacing of their eyes, and it’s a fantastic tool for a herding prey animal to have. But it comes at the cost of poor near vision and depth perception. They also have dichromatic vision, which simply means that instead of seeing in three main colors like we do (red, green, and blue), cattle see in two main colors (yellowish-green and bluish-purple). When combined with poor depth perception and near vision, cattle have trouble telling light, shadow and reality when it comes to fences and gates. Where there is strong sunlight and shadow present, they often miss open gates and try to cross through solid panels or closed gates. When they see a dark blob on the ground, they can’t tell whether it’s a dangerous hole or a shadow. Shiny barbed wire looks dangerous to them and rusted barbed wire might be a snake. The key in these situations is having the patience to not push into the animal’s comfort zone to force them into what they perceive is an unsafe or dangerous place.

One final thought – cattle can definitely sense your emotions. You are in charge, and if you can’t be calm and professional when working cattle, you and the cattle will be best served by giving it up for the day or until you can control your emotions.

Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.

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