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Avoid the chase: Preventing ‘runbacks’ when moving cattle on the range

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 May 2016
Letting cattle go at their own pace

A typical problem during cattle drives is cows and calves getting separated. If they start bawling and trying to find one another, they may try to leave the herd and go back where they came from.

The cure for most problems is prevention. It is understood that if a cow is separated from her calf she usually goes back to the last place she nursed or tried to hide it.

By using low-stress livestock handling principles taught by Bud Williams and his protégés, ranchers can reduce the likelihood of cows and calves becoming separated.

Chad Cheyney, a county extension educator at the University of Idaho, reminds ranchers to allow plenty of time for cows to find their calves before starting to move them. Oftentimes ranchers have the tendency to gather cattle without paying attention to whether they have pairs or not – wasting time and energy down the road.

Slow and steady wins the race

As one cowboy observed a long time ago, the fastest way to move cattle is slowly. Cheyney goes on to say that calves are the weakest link when it comes to moving pairs. If the speed is too fast or the distance too far, he encourages ranchers to stop the herd, let them rest, and get mothered up before moving on.

When cattle are forced to a location, it is a lot tougher than allowing them to moveCheyney further explains that cows travel comfortably at 2-3 mph, and with young calves it could be even slower. Ranchers should understand if horses are used, their walking speed is about 4-5 miles per hour, while four-wheelers travel much faster than that, he says. It is important ranchers pay close attention to the calves’ pace and stress level during the drive.

To slow the pace, Cheyney recommends “riding the horse in a zig-zag pattern behind the cows, perpendicular to the desired direction of travel. Once the herd gets started, it will tend to keep moving.” From there, it is important to let them string out and travel as they normally would, he says.

The use of dogs

When it comes to using dogs, Cheyney issues some cautionary words. He says well-trained, obedient and quiet dogs may help in some cases, but more often than not there’s a group of barking, biting dogs that force the cows ahead, separating them from the calves.

“Cows that get separated from their calves will turn and come back to look for them and fight the dogs that are nipping at the calves that have accumulated in the drag from being pushed too hard,” Cheyney says. Many cows get upset when dogs are used and try to fight the dogs instead of stringing out and traveling.

Cheyney recalls a time several years ago when he used to help one rancher move his cattle. He says they always seemed to have problems, but later when the rancher retired and the son was running the cattle, moving them became much easier and less stressful – just because there were no longer any dogs on the cattle drives.

Keeping pairs together

Bob Kinford, a range consultant in Van Horn, Texas, often tells ranchers, “If what you’re doing with the cattle is just your purpose, it doesn’t mean much to the cows. But if you do it in a way that the cows think it’s ok – because they’re going up the mountain to graze, or to a new pasture, then they’ll do it.

If you try to force the cattle into going someplace they have no idea why they’re going, it will make it harder on both the cattle and the crew.”

For example, Kinford explains that when he moves his cattle from pasture to pasture, he leaves the gate open in case he misses a calf. While most cows will never go back to the gate once they are paired up, the ones that are missing a calf will go back, pair up and rejoin the herd.

“Most people drive cows with their own purpose, rather than the cows’ purpose, and have problems,” he says. “The cows are more resisting, more upset, and there’s more likelihood of pairs getting separated in the process. Do things that make sense to the cow and trust that she will go.”

One thing a lot of ranchers do wrong is they try to keep the cattle in a tight bunch as they move, he says. If there are stragglers, ranchers will go back and chase them up to the rest of the herd, putting stress on the slow ones.

Kinford says, “An example of this is when you take cattle through brush. People tend to bunch them, pushing them faster to get through and the first thing you know, there’s a calf bawling, then several, then they’re all bawling as cows try to find their calves and dust is flying, and everything’s falling apart.”

Typically cows are more worried about their calves than going the right way, he says. If cattle are allowed enough room, they won’t try to get away and hide in the brush.

It’s all in the technique

Steve Cote, a retired district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), has done a lot of work on handling range cattle using low-stress techniques. He has found that there are techniques that can be used to get cattle mothered up and walking at a good pace, without stressing them.

“This kind of handling is a lot like handling horses,” Cote says. “If you want a cow to go, you use pressure and release, just like you would with a horse. Cattle want to be in a herd, but they don’t want to be stressed when they are in that herd.”

Pairs often get separated or un-mothered when ranchers first start driving pairs. Cote points out that if needed, he walks up the sides and slows them to let them get mothered. He says that when cattle are handled that way, pretty soon they won’t view people – and even a good stock dog – as a threat.

“People often wonder if it’s ok to work cattle un-mothered and I tell them they have to observe the cow and take cues from her. Everything you do should be focused on how she perceives things. If the cows are fine with it, then I don’t care if their calf is 10 yards away. But if they start bawling for their calf, they will all be stressed and it won’t work very well,” he explains.

Moving cattle quietly, without problems, is all about being able to understand the cow. It is important ranchers pay close attention to the pace and the stress level of the calves, and then adapt and change to the circumstance. In return, ranchers will find the cattle drive to run better than anticipated.  end mark

PHOTO 1: If ranchers let the cattle string out and go their own speed, without crowding or pushing too hard, they will have fewer problems.

PHOTO 2: When cattle are forced to a location, it is a lot tougher than allowing them to move “thinking” that’s where they want to go. Photos courtesy of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association.

Heather Smith Thomas
  • Heather Smith Thomas

  • Freelance Writer
  • Salmon, Idaho
  • Email Heather Smith Thomas

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