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Farm and Forest Rotational Grazing Techniques

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.

  • Management strategy: Don’t put feeders or waterers in tight spots, such as corners, or somebody is going to get hurt. The waterer in the picture at right is a concrete tank, buried and partly covered so it won’t freeze. A fence line splits it, so that it serves two pastures, but it sits near the center of the two pastures, so there’s plenty of room for jostling cattle to get safely out of each others' way. A concrete pad at the base of the tank helps keep down mud and erosion around the tank.

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.

  • Management strategy: Put gates in the corners of a field, rather than in the center of a fence line. The corner can act as a funnel to help everybody get through the gate. If possible, put a gate in each corner, so that if a laggard misses the first gate, she can get a second chance to join up with a moving herd. The photo below shows the center corner post of a field that has been divided into four smaller pastures.  A gate to each of the four fields opens at this post.

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.

  • Management strategy: For fence lines that adjoin roads or are next to anything that could hurt a calf, build permanent fences that will hold in small calves. But if a large pasture is being split into smaller sections, the cross-fencing can be done with one-strand electric fence at 32 inches off the ground, as seen in the photo at left. At that height, calves can get under the wire, but mama can’t. It will serve as a creep feeder; the calves will get extra grass, but they’ll always go back under the fence to rejoin mom.

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.

  • Management strategy: Make the gaps for gates really wide. Use a 25 foot opening for electric-wire gates, which helps the cattle to be a lot more comfortable and willing to go through those gates.

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.

  • Management strategy: Fence around the edge of the pasture so that the cattle can’t get into the woods.

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.

  • Management strategy: Frequently move the cattle to a different pasture, even in the winter. Although there is no grass growing then, they still need to get to a clean field and give the soiled one a break. If feeding round bales of hay, unroll the bales. This gives the calves a warm, dry, clean place to lay down, at least until their moms eat their bed.

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.

The arrester was formed by wrapping wire around a five-gallon bucket. The circular contraption is in line between the grounding wire and the charger. If lightning gets past the grounding wire, its electrical energy will be thrown off by the circular wire, further protecting the fence charger, which is mounted in the barn.

• 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. 

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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.