Stockmanship isn’t about being kinder and gentler so much as learning to see it from the cattle’s point of view and acting accordingly.
Back in the early days (when it was still properly called the Savory Grazing Method (SGM)) one of the first and loudest howls to go up when paddocks and electric fencing were mentioned was, “But you are taking the cowboying out of it.”
Low stress herding = problem solved. If that ain’t cowboying I don’t know what else you could call it. — jtl
by Matt Barnes via Progressive Cattleman
Horses tied and waiting, we watched 386 commingled spayed heifers move across a large mountain meadow as a cohesive herd. We were camped in a meadow surrounded by aspen trees, just below the Continental Divide in western Montana.
This is an esoteric pleasure of stockmen, who can appreciate the aesthetics of a herd showing good movement, especially in a landscape where we aren’t the only carnivores – where there might be a cougar, grizzly bear or wolf nearby.
My colleagues and I have been working with a couple of truly progressive cattlemen who have demonstrated successful grazing strategies and had remarkably few losses to potential predators.
The rancher on whose land we worked that day once found a wolf eating the carcass of a dead yearling – but otherwise has had no conflict with wolves.
The rancher, Whit Hibbard, is a lifelong cattleman and a practitioner of both rotational grazing and stockmanship, especially low-stress livestock handling as developed by Bud Williams.
One way to describe low-stress livestock handling is handling a herd not like a pack of wolves would – surround and push – but more like a border collie, with pressure and release.
I often see otherwise-excellent cowboys moving cattle exactly like a pack of wolves. I just didn’t recognize it until I learned about low-stress livestock handling. The more I learn, the more I see we have more impact on cattle than we realize.
Animals hide stress like they hide weakness or injury, a mechanism for coping with potential predators. Stockmanship isn’t about being kinder and gentler so much as learning to see it from the cattle’s point of view and acting accordingly.
On that particular day, as we camped in the meadow, we watched those cattle because we’d been testing some herding methods and wanted to see the cattle stay in a large, concentrated group rather than be scattered.
One reason we want increased stock density on the range is the improved distribution generally associated with rotational grazing. The ranch already practices rotational grazing with seven permanently fenced pastures.
With a short summer grazing season, this is enough to prevent most repeat grazing of individual plants (i.e., overgrazing), but it isn’t enough to reap all of the benefits of high stocking density. In the past, the ranch has split pastures, including the one we were in, with two or three temporary electric fences to further shorten grazing periods and improve distribution.
We were using herding to get the same benefits associated with more intensive rotations.
Protection in the herd
We also wanted to rekindle the herd instinct because the herd is the natural anti-predator behavior of cattle, just as it is of bison, elk and other preyed-upon species.
Our experience had been that the relatively few cattle actually killed by predators weren’t random; they were ones that were more vulnerable – not just ones that were sick or injured but also those that were isolated from the main herd or in small groups, a behavior for which commingled yearlings are particularly known.
We tested two apparently similar approaches to herding cattle, both thought to be low-stress. The first method, developed by cattleman Garl Germann of the Rodear Initiative, was to hold the cattle at high density with one rider driving from behind while another kept the leaders from moving beyond the herd – effectively encircling or rodearing the cattle.
This achieved a very high stock density with fine-scale control of where the cattle grazed. But with this method, the density needed to be constantly enforced. It was our idea, not the herd’s idea.
As part of this method, we night-penned the cattle with poly wire so the density would be maintained and morning herding would not need to begin with a gather. The night pen was not intended to keep potential predators out.
Our second method was to make our idea the herd’s idea, using low-stress livestock handling without night-penning. We gathered the cattle from water at midday before they began the afternoon grazing period. We generated most of the movement from the side rather than the back and made sure every animal that responded properly to pressure received an immediate release.
We pointed them in the general direction of a water source or salt and mineral feeder, letting them line out and choose their own density and speed. Our focus wasn’t on the destination but on making the movement as a single herd a rewarding experience for the cattle.
Each morning, we observed the density of the cattle, and over the course of several days, we saw them go from small groups to large groups to a single herd.
That’s the moment of beauty we were watching that day in the meadow: 24 hours after we stopped riding, the commingled heifers were staying in a single herd, at a stock density similar to what we had used when herding them.
too much pressure
Both methods increased stock density and would facilitate strategic grazing management and improved grazing distribution, but working with animal behavior led to the cattle staying together voluntarily.
One question remained: Was the herd instinct we were observing primarily from low-stress livestock handling or the cumulative effect of both herding methods? To answer that, we returned to the first method after rekindling the herd instinct.
The next day (the last day of the herding project) two of us encircled the cattle, moving them slowly through areas where we wanted more use, and settled them late in the day.
The next morning, we found them scattered. Why? Because the method involved persistent pressure rather than consistent release when animals behaved as we intended.
We accidentally punished them for doing the right thing, and when given the chance, they chose to do what we considered the wrong thing.
When we stopped adhering to the principles of low-stress handling, we didn’t see the stress we were causing to the cattle, even though we were slow and quiet.
Adhering to those principles is how we make our idea theirs: Staying together facilitates strategic grazing management as well as coexistence with large carnivores.
Matt Barnes, certified professional in rangeland management, directs the Rangeland Stewardship program at People and Carnivores in Bozeman, Montana. For more information, email Matt or visit People and Carnivores and click on Publications.
PHOTO 1: Herding yearlings in western Montana. Riding reverse-parallel, a low-stress livestock handling technique for pressuring and releasing the herd from the side.
PHOTO 2: All 386 of the commingled heifers showing rekindled herd instinct and good movement 24 hours after the riders stopped herding. This facilitates strategic grazing management and coexistence with large carnivores. Photos courtesy of Matt Barnes.
A Handbook for Ranch Managers. In keeping with the “holistic” idea that the land, the livestock, the people and the money should be viewed as a single integrated whole: Part I deals with the management of the natural resources. Part II covers livestock production and Part III deals with the people and the money. Not only would this book make an excellent basic text for a university program in Ranch Management, no professional ranch manager’s reference bookshelf should be without it. It is a comprehensive reference manual for managing the working ranch. The information in the appendices and extensive bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.
You might also be interested in the supplement to this Handbook: Planned Grazing: A Study Guide and Reference Manual.