Best Management Practice Series
A Cattle Whisperer's Secrets
A big part of the reason Becky Day can quietly speak to her cattle and get them to go where she wants is that she has observed them long enough to be able to predict how they will behave in certain situations. Since she uses a rotational grazing system that requires moving cattle frequently, she has developed management strategies that take typical cattle behavior into account. This is especially important for planning the layout of fences, gates, feeders, and waterers.
Here are some examples of how Becky puts her "cow sense" to work:
Eating and drinking behavior: Cattle will crowd and push each other, particularly for food and sometimes for water. They develop a pecking order, and the boss cow might just put down her head and shove another one well across the field.
Herd movement behavior: When cattle move, somebody usually lags behind and doesn’t go with the rest of the herd. If the laggards miss the gate, they’ll follow the herd on the wrong side of the fence, rather than go back around to the gate.
Calf behavior: Calves will stray from their mothers, particularly if they can get under a fence to find some nice juicy grass. But they’ll always go back to mama.
Behavior to avoid pain: Cattle quickly find out that a slender single line of electric wire can really hurt. They learn to associate a row of fenceposts with that hard-to-see wire, and can be reluctant to cross a row of posts, even if the wire is absent, such as when a gap is opened to make a gate. This can make it hard to get them to move between pastures.
Behavior in wooded areas: Cattle can get sick from eating acorns, and they can trample tree roots or rub the bark off trees, which can kill the timber. It is difficult to move cattle through a wooded area, because they scatter and lag. Mother cows sometimes go hide in the woods to have their calves, which can make it very hard for the owner to find her and help her if she gets in trouble.
Mud and manure-making behavior: Left in one place, cattle will trample the grass, churn up mud, and drop lots of manure. This creates an unhealthy environment, especially for calves, plus it leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion.
Becky Day's Fence Building Ideas
Experience is the best teacher. Here are some tips from Becky, learned from trying things that work and also from making mistakes:
Sometimes a new electric wire is mounted to an existing fence, particularly to carry electricity from the charger in the barn to a distant field that is being cross-fenced. Don’t put the electric wire at the top, because if the deer jump it, they can get the electric wire tangled into existing barbed wire. Instead, put the electric wire about halfway up from the ground.
When cross-fencing a big field, always make rectangular corners. Don’t be tempted to run the new fence from corner to corner, which would create triangular fields and therefore very narrow corners. Cattle get bottled up in any corner that is less than 90 degrees, and could get hurt or tear up the fence.
Electric fence wire stretches in warm weather and shrinks in cold weather. That makes it really difficult to open a gap gate in the winter. Install an in-line spring in gates to take up the slack in summer and allow some stretch in winter.
The photo at right shows a home-made lightning arrester, which protects the electric fence charger from burn-up during electrical storms. One wire leads to several ground rods that are buried under the drip line of the building in the background. To achieve the best grounding, soil surrounding ground rods needs to stay moist, so runoff from the roof helps.
An inexpensive swinging gate can be made using a cattle panel and three eye bolts, as seen in the photo below at left. After the bolts are screwed into the post, their “eyes” are pried open just enough to insert the cattle panel wire. The gate can be leveled by screwing certain bolts further into the post. The photo below at right shows a close-up of the bolt.
Photos and text by Denise Henderson Vaughn.
The development of content for the Best Management Practices Series is funded through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region VII, through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, has provided partial funding for this project under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act.