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Hauling cattle to summer pastures Heather Smith Thomas
While the ubiquitous pickup-pulled livestock trailer is great for hauling cattle, a semi is more efficient if you’re moving big numbers of pairs. With any trailer, regardless of size, keep the safety and well-being of the cattle — especially the calves — in mind.

Tips for safely hauling your pairs to summer pasture

Pay close attention to young calves when turnout time rolls around.

Editor’s note: In conversations with BEEF readers who have been in the cattle business for years, one thing stands out — a concern for people who are entering the business. To address that concern, BEEF is featuring a series of articles over the next year written by veteran contributor Heather Smith Thomas that looks at various aspects of ranch management. While these articles will focus on the basics, it may be that old-timers can pick up a tip or two as well. This is the sixth article in the series.

Summer pasture can sometimes be a long way from winter pastures or the homeplace.

Traditionally, many cattle were trailed to summer pasture, and a few ranchers still maintain that practice. But today, most producers haul the pairs instead — especially if it’s a long distance or there’s a lot of traffic on the roads.

Hauling cows with young calves can be a challenge, but there are ways to get it done safely and efficiently. Here are some tips.

Divide and conquer

Hauling your pairs separately — especially when calves are small — is always safer, to prevent calves being stepped on or squashed. Even when hauling them separately, a key rule of thumb is to not to crowd too many in a truck or trailer. 

Most producers who haul a lot of cattle feel it’s better to have them a little loose rather than overcrowded, especially with calves. You don’t want one down and unable to get up if they are too crowded. It’s cheaper to hire another truck than lose a calf or have one get injured.

Another tip: Don’t overfeed cattle just before they are hauled. They haul better if they are a little empty, and they also won’t be passing as much manure. If they get dirty, especially the calves, it’s more difficult for pairs to mother up. 

Cattle recognize each other mainly by smell, and it’s harder for a cow to recognize her calf (and vice versa) if they are covered with manure. If that happens, sort that cow and calf off by themselves and hold them until they do mother up.

Calves can be hard to load if they’ve never been in a trailer or up a semi ramp. It may be helpful to use flags to help herd them in, but do it with the least stress possible. When hauling calves in a semi, it often helps to put a gentle cow with them, because they will follow her into the truck.

If a person is hauling just a trailer load with a few pairs, it works best to put all the cows on the front, because they’re heaviest, and the calves in the back compartment. The cows generally load readily because they know they are going to summer pasture.

If it’s a long haul, start early enough in the morning to get them where they are going early in the day. Then they have time to pair up, with several hours of daylight left to monitor them.

It’s important to not leave the herd until they are all settled down, and the calves have found their mamas again.

Pair ’em up after you get there

When taking large groups to pasture, it helps to have corrals at the other end; after the cattle are unloaded, they can be held there until they pair up. After a long haul, cows will be hungry, and aren’t very interested in their calves until they’ve taken care of themselves.

The cows tend to spread out grazing, not paying attention to anything else. The calves won’t know where Mama went and may try to leave and go back where they came from.

If you don’t have permanent corrals, consider portable corrals. The cattle can be paired up in the corral and the pairs allowed to drift out of the corral.

It’s important to not unload too many cattle in a small area. If they are in a tight wad, it’s harder for pairs to find each other. The pen or pasture should be small enough that they can’t go very far, but big enough to let them move around and get mothered up.

It always pays to monitor the herd for a while or contain them in a small pasture where they can readily find each other before they go out into the larger area.

If you don’t have a corral, it’s important to have a few cowboys to pair up the cattle and monitor pairs after the cattle are unloaded. 

Several riders can simply hold the cattle loosely in the area where they were unloaded, while a rider or two goes quietly through the herd and mothers up any pairs that have not found one another. It helps if calves have ear tags with the same numbers as their mothers, so that even someone who doesn’t know the cattle can assist in mothering them up.

Some ranchers unload and pair up in a corral that’s inside the pasture the cattle will be turned into. If the cattle get paired up in the corral but get separated after they leave it, the calf will always come back to where it saw its mother last.

Turning them out first into a small pasture rather than a great big area is always best.

If you can’t do that, pair them out of the holding area — making sure they are pairs as you let them go — and then the cow and her calf can leave together. 

This can take time, but it saves time later by preventing problems. There won’t be any cows or calves that try to go back home to find their calf or mom.

If one starts bawling and leaves the group, often a bunch more will follow that one. Make sure they have all found each other, so they can go off together in the new pasture.

Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.

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