THE ART OF HERDING CATTLE
IT IS BOTH SCIENCE AND ART
HERDING CATTLE LOOKS SO EPIC AND ROMANTIC ON TV.
You have the cowboys on their horses riding around in the open ranges. Ropes twirling over head, leather chaps flapping, cowboy hats casting shadows over dark eyes of the perfect grown out scruff over a strong jawline of a wild mustang of man. But I have found in real life it can be a little less romantic and epic.
Greg has taken me out a few times to “help” him. But without knowing really where the cattle are going, what route they are supposed to take to get there, where I need to be, how fast I need to be there, and, importantly, where I do NOT need to be. I am not much help.
Think of it like this: Have you ever tried to move a balloon from one side of a room to another using only a blow dryer? If you have, you have a basic understanding of herding cattle. Only instead of 1 balloon you are moving 90 plus balloons.
If you do any of these things think of a cue ball hitting a set of racked pool ball. The cows will run, stampede style, in every direction. So, the most important thing to remember when herding cattle is that slow IS fast. You also have to understand “bovine psychology and behavior” and you have to know some things about your self as well. We have all heard that animals mirror our moods and emotions. Cows are no different. If you are uptight, in a rush and stressed out- your herd will be also.
This will be bravest and smartest cow in the bunch. Once you do this, you can create a clear route for her/him to lead. Remember to also put enough pressure, in the right position, so that she or he will go where you want and the others will follow.
However, there are ALWAYS exceptions. You will ALWAYS have one cow that is intent on doing and going it’s own way. In one instance, here on the ranch, one such cow did just that and 8 others followed.
Knowing they would find their way into the main pasture with the fresh hey and water source, we allowed them to just take their time, grazing the tall grass in the lane so that we did not have to come back later in the week and weed eat it. Two birds, one stone.
But, as it always goes, when you take it for granted that a plan is full proof, 1 cow found the 1 weak spot, in 1 section of fencing on the way and pushed through it- 8 followed.
Right before dark, our neighbor calls to let us know that our cattle are roaming around his 40 acres of wooded property. He informed us he would just close the gate on his drive way and make sure they didn’t leave his yard. There wasn’t a huge since of urgency. They were in the woods behind our neighbors house and could not leave. It was getting dark, so we all agreed to get them in the morning. Well, that turned into two weeks of mornings, afternoons, and evenings trying to get those crazy cows back into our pasture!
This is a drawing I made one night after trying to find them. I imagine this is what the band of ‘ Lost Boy Steer’ looked like after about a week in the wild.
Like they, somehow, learning the art of concealment and had become completely invisible. They had even, over night, learned to move silently through the woods. Nine cows walking through the woods are NOT quiet or invisible. But we could not find them.
We tried rounding them up on horseback (cattle are usually more calm when worked on horseback), But our neighbor grows plant material for use in his landscape business. The part of his property that the cows had taken up residence on was among his plant nursery. There were large holes where trees and bushes were excavated-and the horses and cattle were in danger of stepping in one during a round up and possibly breaking a leg. So that was out.
We tried on foot. But the trees and bushes were too thick for us to get through and on the ground and we were unable to see where we were going in relation to the cattle. So that too was out.
We tried on ATV’s but couldn’t get through the rows without running over his plants.
We couldn’t use our dogs because the woods and nursery were so thick we were concerned they could run into a rattlesnake (our neighbor told us he had recently seen a few and killed one).
Two weeks past, and neither our neighbor or us had set eyes on the nine rouge cows. Our neighbor could hear them but never saw them. We could see their tracks but could never determine where they lead to. They had found a water source and the forage was very much to their liking so they were in no hurry or need to leave their new found paradise. I always laughed, figuring them to be like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan having set up a hideout amongst thick American Holly tree grove and were laughing and recounting close calls with the rancher in much the same way the Lost Boys did Captain Hook.
Greg finally recruited a friend of his who owns a drone. His friend, Todd, came flew the drone over the property and would tell Greg when he saw one through the live camera. We recovered 6 using this method. But there were 3 left and apparently they had completely given themselves over to The Wild. They proved to be smart, adaptable and moved with ease through the acreage undetected and unseen by anyone.
They could not be called by voice, by bucket, by bag rattling, or engine idling. Cattle learn that certain sounds mean food: tractor engine means hay, ATV engine means range cubes, buckets mean grain, bag rattling means treats. Just like me when I hear a bag of chips being opened in another room.
So Greg, over a cold beer on the front porch one night, finally devised a plan of action. A last ditch effort to get these guys out of the neighbors “Promised Land”, “The Garden of Cow Eden”, and back with the herd.
Greg cut the barb wire fence in a place we saw tracks often. He had their other six, previously caught buddies, in the pasture this led to. He pulled a feeding trough about 20 yards inside the cut section and we swept the ground clean of leaves, sticks, grass, and hoof prints. Greg pulled a long vine (think ‘trip wire) and secured it low between the fence post in the opening we cut.
On the 3rd day of our trap, we found the vine pulled to the inside of our pasture and not to the outside pointing back into our neighbors yard (if it had been pulled in the direction of our neighbors side we would have known cows, previously caught, had left the pasture and not that the three had come in the pasture). But three sets of hoof prints were heading into the pasture and non heading back out. We finally caught them!
Greg and I had a lot of fun imagining what the cows were doing and thinking in regards to the chase. Much like a Curious George cartoon where the story is told from the perspective of George the monkey watching the Man in the Big Yellow Hat. I passed many moments in amusement imaging our cows plotting and laughing at the Rancher in the Big Brown Cowboy Hat.
The Art of Herding Cattle takes patience, planning, and, most importantly of all, a sense of humor with your favorite cowboy by your side.