It’s possible to rotationally graze cattle on large pastures or rangeland without using electric fence and without herders, says Bob Kinford. Billing himself as “the only person teaching how to instill herd instinct in cattle,” Kinford says low-stress stockmanship is the key.
The Van Horn, Texas, rancher describes himself as “a low-stress stockman teaching stockmanship to those who handle cattle on horseback or want to practice holistic grazing without extra fencing.” It’s all about instilling herd instinct in the cattle and utilizing it to keep them bunched up — without fences or herders.
“This is what people used to do with livestock; we used to herd them,” Kinford says. “But we’ve gone away from this type of grazing management toward relying on fences to keep animals where we want them. The result is that fenceless stockmanship is foreign to many ranchers.”
Kinford says that, as a kid, he pondered why goats and sheep exhibited a herd mentality, but cows would scatter. He says it took him several decades of experimenting to discover that cattle’s natural instinct is to act as a herd, but it only happens when human-induced stress is absent.
“If cattle are on range and semi-wild, they scatter when they see riders, and they’re hard to gather. They scatter as a defense tactic, to get away, because they know they are captive when they are all together. If you remove that stress from cattle, however, they won’t try to scatter,” he explains.
Kinford takes his cues for natural cattle movement from watching how cattle behave around each other. “You’ll see the boss cow walk by another animal; if she puts her head down, the other cow will speed up to get out of her way,” he says. He adds that when a bull herds his cows, the cows respond to his leadership. “All a bull has to do is make a threatening gesture, and the cows will get back into the herd and stay there.”
When relocating cattle, he gets the herd moving slowly across the landscape, and then moves ahead of them to slow them down. The cattle will start dropping their heads and graze, but only to take a bite or two while maintaining their movement. This, he says, is similar to how big herds graze on the African plains — staying together and grazing slowly across the land.
Using minimal pressure
He says cattle are much more amenable to doing what humans desire, if it’s not accompanied by excessive pressure. “You get a lot farther by just giving a cow a suggestion, then walking off and leaving her. When you’re moving cattle and starting them up, don’t try to do it quickly; it’s better to ease them into it,” Kinford says.
To illustrate his point, he asks his seminar attendees to imagine themselves in a traffic jam. “You sit there, bored and frustrated, and when everyone starts to move a little in front of you, the stress is relieved. But if there are people honking behind you, your stress level rises, and you generally look for a way out, while the stress just keeps building,” he explains.
It’s the same with cattle,” he says. “If cattle are scattered out, rather than picking them all up and moving them, I go around them quietly. To any that are lying down, I just get close enough that they’ll get up. I’ll then leave them alone and let them stretch, or I’ll walk by them to where they start moving a few steps, and have them going the same direction as the other cows. If I do this early in the morning when they’re starting to get up and go to water, they’ll decide to go to water now.” You’ve given them that suggestion, he says.
“Then you can just ride off and leave them. The cow we nudged, then goes down to join the other cows and gets water.”
Because cattle are “suggestible” animals, Kinford says just a bit of suggestion is necessary to get the cattle started. “If a few cows don’t go with the herd, all you have to do is give those cows a suggestion and they join the herd, too. If you do this two or three times, they keep getting closer together every time they move somewhere, staying together as a herd,” he says.
If you can make a cow think it’s her idea to do something, you can do anything with cattle. The key is to do it at the cow’s speed.
“Once you get the cattle acting as a herd, all you have to do is get to the front and slow them down to stop them where you want them. If you have pairs, ride through them a bit and encourage them to stay mothered up,” Kinford says.
He stresses that it’s important to ride through cattle a lot, without making them do anything. “This puts them at ease, and they won’t automatically take off when they see someone on horseback,” he says. It’s important that the cattle are used to your presence and comfortable with it.
“Then, when you start them, you move to the front and go against them to turn the front of the herd, whichever direction you want them to go. They’ll just line out and go,” he says.
Kinford reports that he’s handled alone up to 1,200 steers and 600 cow-calf pairs. “You just need enough patience to teach yourself to be able to trust the cattle,” he explains.
He says one common mistake is when herders attempt to keep all the cattle in a tight bunch as they move, with any stragglers immediately chased up to the herd. But Kinford says that stresses the slow cattle. “But if you don’t follow them, after a few times, they’ll come on their own,” he says.
When he moves cattle by himself, Kinford says there may be a small group toward the back of the herd that stop to graze. “They may be 100 yards away from the herd, and I’ll trot back there. One will look up and see me coming, and they’ll start running, playing and racing to see which of them can catch up with the herd the fastest. I don’t have to do anything at all to move them,” he says.
In fact, Kinford says he has a blue heeler dog that sometimes handles the chore. “She’ll trot back partway and the cows will come join the herd; then she’ll come back so proud of herself as if to say, ‘See what I did, Boss!’ It’s almost like remote control,” Kinford says.
A range management tool
Kinford says this type of handling can be very helpful in moving cattle to different areas of the range and keeping them where you want them to stay — without fences.
“People think that in order to practice holistic management or rotational grazing, fencing is a must. However, in many range areas, it isn’t feasible, so most people don’t try to do it,” Kinford says.
He says that, in some regions, it’s possible to trace the origins of desertification. “When I talk to people in their 80s and 90s down here around Van Horn, they tell me of places where they once hayed native grama grass. Those areas are now growing nothing but creosote bush and mesquite.”
In fact, last summer, he visited a Chihuahua, Mexico, ranch owned by Alejandro Carillo. Initially started by Carillo’s great-grandfather, Kinford says the elder Carillo’s journals recounted how cowboys of the day had to clean their cinches daily; otherwise, their horses got sore from all the grass seeds caught in them.
“That whole area from deep Mexico up into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah was a sea of grass. Now, there’s more bare ground, creosote and mesquite than anything else,” Kinford says.
After reading the journals, Kinford believes the difference in vegetation stems from the fact that old-timers constantly moved their cattle. They would graze an area, then move and go to a different water source, mimicking the behavior of the wild herds. But once the range was fenced, livestock were pastured, and they grazed the same areas over and over. The forage was never allowed to recover and propagate, he says.
Plants without a rest period will eventually die due to overuse, while others die because of underuse, Kinford explains. He says that’s why mob grazing is so effective in restoring depleted pastures and soils. This type of short-term grazing has animals eating the tops of plants and trampling the rest of the plant to create litter that builds up the soil. It’s a strategy that hasn’t been used much on rangeland, however, due to lack of fences or herders.
Acting as a herd
That’s why low-stress handling and placing cattle as a herd can be beneficial for rangeland, he adds. “By using these techniques, we can get them acting and grazing as a herd.”
He explains that during the winter of 2012, he ran 468 cows through the pasture system of the Circle Ranch in Van Horn.
“The water situation is such that if you have 500 cows in a pasture, they work off four or five different water sources. So I’d have four or five groups and get them each working as a herd — and move them around in the pasture. At times, I put all the cattle in one area, and then split them back into their smaller groups to use other areas. It was amazing because they would all go back to their own group and water source,” Kinford says.
He says that in one area, 75% of the cattle utilized one water source. “They’d come to water and then go back to the same place where I’d sent them up a mountain. Some actually made it all the way to the top — a 600-foot difference in elevation from the water. They’d come down to water and then hike back up. We were grazing some areas that people claimed couldn’t be grazed with cattle,” he says.
Kinford says it’s just a matter of persuading the cattle to do it. “If you’re doing it in a way that the cows think it is OK to go up there to eat, then they’ll do it. If we were to try to force them into going someplace that they have no idea why they are going there, it’s harder to move them, and they’ll want to come back,” he says.
He says the cows on that ranch knew he was moving them from pasture to pasture and leaving the gate open, in case a calf was missed in the move. “That way a cow could go back and get her calf and bring it back and rejoin the cows. The other cows would never try to come back,” he says.
A Chihuahua experience
To underscore the system’s benefits to range health, Kinford points to Alejandro Carillo’s experience in Chihuahua. He says his client changed to holistic management 10 years ago. “Now, his bottomlands have recovered and are back to growing grama grass and other native grasses. Last summer, we got his cattle acting as a herd. He took them into some mountains this winter, and we set up a plan for water sources. He only had to develop one water point,” Kinford says.
“He had a person go out there and send the cattle up the ridge one day, and up a valley and a ridge the next day. Those cattle went around the whole interior of the mountain range.
“Alejandro says they now have three cool-season grasses that no one around there could identify because they’d never seen them before. Under this management, the grasses were coming back — and it’s only taken one rider to do this on 30,000 acres on the Chihuahua desert,” he says.
When Carillo adopted the new management concept, he was running 100 cows and had to supplement with hay, Kinford says. “Now he’s running more than 500 head and feeding no hay. He estimates that when the entire ranch is reclaimed, he’ll have enough grass to run 1,000 cows without having to feed. In the current drought, he had one year with only 5 inches of rain and still managed to make more grass,” Kinford adds.
Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.
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