Corralling Livestock in Pastures and Pens

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Photo by Jack Houston
When the handler in in this position, the three stages of the animals' reaction are visable.

Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals (Storey Publishing, 2017), by Temple Grandin, introduces new ways to handle livestock. Grandin provides tips and tricks for the handler to use in order to better approach livestock in pastures and pens. You will also find livestock moving techniques as well as building ideas and layouts for pens and pastures. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Working in Pastures in Pens.”

Animal behavior on range land, in pastures, and in corrals is governed both by instinct and by learned responses to surroundings. Regardless of their genetic makeup, all species of grazing animals are born with natural behavior patterns. Over the eons, these patterns developed in wild and domestic herds as strategies to avoid predators. For example, they will graze in bunches that make it harder for a predator to single out and target an individual for its next meal. Or they will all turn to face a predator, real or perceived, that is outside of their flight zone in any direction. Early naturalists referred to these hardwired predator-avoidance behaviors as instincts; modern animal behaviorists call them fixed action patterns. Skilled, quiet handlers can make use of these innate behaviors to gather and move livestock successfully. When low-stress gathering and herding methods are first used on animals that are not accustomed to people, they trigger a progression of behavior patterns. These begin as purely reactive and instinctual and ultimately become based on animal learning and trust.


• Natural behavior patterns that are innate in all grazing animals enable them to avoid predators.

• Stock handlers must understand the principles of the flight zone and the point of balance.

• When cattle are moving where you want them to go, back off and relieve your pressure.

• When animals in a group are moved through a pasture gate, they should walk past the stock person in a calm, controlled manner.

• Use the principle of pressure and release.

• Find the right amount of pressure to keep the herd moving forward without causing the animals to run.

• Stress will be reduced if you carefully introduce animals to corrals, restraint devices, and milking facilities before doing procedures.

Understanding Herd Instincts

Some instinctual behavior patterns are very rigid and resistant to change, whereas others can be modified by experience and learning. For example, a sexually mature bull will always respond to a cow inestrus by curling his upper lip, known as the fleh-men response. This is an example of a fixed action pattern, performed the same way every time, regardless of experience. A sow that lives in the woodsor in a barn will build her babies a nest of leaves or twigs or whatever material is available. Farmers have observed that by the time she has her second or third litter of piglets, she begins to select and place her nesting materials more deliberately: the leaves may be organized on the inside of the nest, and twigs on the out- side. This is an example of an instinct that can be modified by learning. A sow knows by instincthow to build a basic nest, but her nests improve with experience.

Herd or Flock Formation

Living in groups rather than having a solitary existence improves the chance of survival for grazing animals. While some animals graze, others are on the lookout; any animal that sees any potential danger can alert the entire herd. Antelope flash the white under their tails to signal others of the presence of predators. Cattle and sheep will alert each other with head-up movements. Group living ensures constant vigilance,the safety that comes from large numbers. When native herds of bison freely roamed the plains, they grazed one area of pasture and then moved on. Because there were lots of predators around, the animals grazed in tight bunches for safety, thereby “mowing” the grasses. After the grass was mowed, they moved on to a new area. Modern rotation, or mob, grazing systems mimic natural grazing behavior by densely stocking animals on a section of ground for a short period of time and then moving them to f resh pasture. This pattern improves the pasture because the herd’s manure fertilizes the grass. The tight bunches of animals evenly mow an area instead of selectively picking only the most palatable plants. Pasture specialist Fred Provenza says using mob grazing prevents animals from “eating the best and leaving the rest,” and adds that the grass grows again when the animals are driven to a new area. Producers who use rotational grazing must allow the grazed pastures sufficient time to fully regrow. A common mistake is not allowing pastures that have been mob-grazed sufficient recovery time. There are huge variations in climate and in the time required for plants to regrow andbe ready to be grazed again.

Defense Strategies of Grazing Animals

• Turning and facing the predator when it enters the pressure zone.

• Another name for the pressure zone is zone of awareness.

• Turning and moving away from the predator when it enters the flight zone

• Running in the opposite direction when the predator crosses the point of balance

• Loose bunching of the herd

• Milling and circling of the herd

Experts at Reading Body Language

Grazing animals have evolved to be highly sensitive to body posture and intention. For instance, when lions are not hunting, antelope will follow them at a distance they percieve to be safe. If a lion begins to exhibit stalking behavior, the safe distance expands, the flight zone grows larger, and the antelope flee.

Dances with Cattle

Dawn Hnatow, livestock manager at Cattle Up Ranch in Sulphur Springs, Texas, explains that it is important to teach cattle to move in a controlled way. A skilled stockperson initiates cattle movement by entering the flight zone, and she stops it by retreating back into the pressure zone. She relieves the pressure when the animals cooper- ate. This teaches the cattle that the handler will “ask” them to move, and once they have moved, the uncomfortable penetration of the flight zone is relieved.

Pressure Zone and Flight Zone

Grazing animals naturally employ five basic instinctual behavior patterns to avoid predators. A handler who intuitively understands these behaviors should be able to gather and drive almost any grazing animal herd.

When grazing animals first spot a predator, they will turn and face it. The predator is in the pressure zone.The area in which an animal first becomes aware of a potential threat — whether a predator or an approaching handler — and turns to face it (or sometimes just turns its head) is called the pressure zone. The animal monitors the location of the threat in relation to himself and makes a decision about when it’s safe to stay and when it’s time to move away. Maintaining a certain distance from the intruder gives an individual a head start if pursued. The turning-and-facing behavior is hardwired, but the flight distance is affected by experience. According to Ron Gill at Texas A&M University, animals that are being moved by a handler want to see where that handler is. Curt Pate, a cattle handling specialist, uses this tendency as a method to “draw” cattle toward him when he wants to sort them. Calm cattle that are paying attention to a handler will tend to follow when the handler backs away. Curt makes sure the desired animal is looking at him when he starts backing away. Animals are verysensitive to body posture. They know the difference between a stalking lion and one that is simply walking by, and they can read human posture and intent just as well. When grazing animals learn to trust a calm and respectful handler, their tendency to turn and face the person in the pressure zone will decrease, and instead they will become more willing to walk away in a straight line. The natural turn-and-facebehavior has been overridden by learning.

At the point where the animals can no longer tolerate the handler’s approach, they will turn and move away. The handler has entered the flight zone. As the handler approaches closer to the animal, he leaves the pressure zone and enters the flight zone, and the animal will turn and move away.

If a handler crosses a grazing animal’s point of balance, located at the shoulder or just behind the eye, the animal will always run in the opposite direction. This hardwired, innate maneuver helps an animal dodge a fatal attack on its flank. A human handler can take advantage of this instinctual response, by passing across the point of balance to movelivestock calmly. Using point-of-balance principles is especially helpful when guiding either a single animal or a group of animals through a single-file or double- file chute. Handlers who want to move ananimal forward must never stand at its head and poke it on the rear. This gives the animal conflicting directional signals. When you work inside the flight zone and walk in the opposite direction of thedesired movement, the animal will move forward when you cross the point of balance.

Grazing animals form bunches when they live in an area with predators. This makes it harder for a predator to single out a lone individual. Cattle in bear country will naturally graze in loose bunches. Those in areas generally f ree of predators tend to spread out. Livestock will remain calm when grazing in loose bunches. Cattle herding specialist Bob Kinford states that when cattle become acclimated to grazing in bunches they will all face in the same direction as theymow the grass. Flighty breeds of sheep will form a tight flock when threatened. Flocking is their main defense, and they can group together very quickly. I have observed sheep forming a tight bunch almost instantly upon spotting the shepherd’s herding dog.

When predators attack livestock, the flock or herd begins milling and circling.
Dominant animals move to the middle of the tight circle (the safest area), and the weakest ones pace and mill at the outer edges of the circle. Instinctive fear-motivated behavior, milling and circling can be an effective defense when predators attack, especially effective with large herds. The adult females face outward and attack predators with their horns. The predators eat a few animals on theperimeter of the milling mob, and the rest survive. Ranchers who graze animals in country with lots of predators have reported that animals that scatter when attacked will lose more lambs or calves than animals that stand their ground by bunching together. Milling is stimulated by fear, but standing one’s ground is more likely to be motivated by a mother animal’s instinct to protect her young. A mother with a calf will often face a predator and may attempt to attack it. There are genetic influences on defense behaviors, and some animals are more successful in defending themselves from predators than others. In South and East Africa, a cavalry of Cape buffalo moms will band together and chase lions away f rom a threatened calf. Milling cattle are f rightened and highly stressed. People handling cattlemust avoid triggering this predator-avoidant milling behavior. It is a hardwired behavior that good stockpersons never want to see when animals are being moved or handled.

Bud’s Basics

Cattle handling specialist Bud Williams developed a basic principle. To speed up forward movement, he moves within the flight zone in the opposite direction of desired movement; to slow down movement, Bud moves outside the flight zone in the same direction as desired movement. (He remains within the pressure zone so that the animal will remain aware of his presence.)

Reprinted with permission from Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals by Temple Grandin and published by  Storey Publishing, 2017.