Our “little herders” cost $30 for a lifetime

Strategically placed traffic signs make moving cattle child’s play for this Montana couple.

March 30, 2015

6 Min Read
Our “little herders” cost $30 for a lifetime

Picture yourself with a white sheet of paper on a table, some iron shavings and a magnet. If you place the negative side of the magnet on the paper and move it in a sweeping motion across the page, the shavings will be pushed ahead of the magnet. That side-to-side sweeping motion with a magnet is similar to the sweeping motion of a cattle handler using cattle’s flight zone to move them from pasture to pasture.

Now, if you place the iron shavings back in the center of the page, and turn the magnet around to use the positive side, moving the magnet will attract the cattle to it. Watch how the shavings adhere to the magnet and move in a compact tail-like shape behind the magnet. This is the stress-free way to move cattle.

ranchers user mr. slow sign to herd cattle
The Bergins have placed one of their “Mister Slow” herders at an open gate. The child safety sign with the fluttering flag guides the calmly moving cattle away from the opening.

Reverse the polarity

Here is how to reverse the polarity of your herding practices to make the movement of cattle from pasture to pasture stress-free.

  • At the same time of the day you plan to move cattle, feed the cattle for at least two days near the gate you plan to exit. We roll out big round bales of hay to entice cattle.

  • Immediately before moving the cattle, preview the route you plan to take. Look for problem areas or “snags” in your route, such as an entryway to a ranch, a gate you can’t close, any fence that is down, an intersection in a county road or a highway to cross.

  • Place a child safety sign at every snag. These are the 32-inch-high, green plastic figures of a child wearing a red baseball cap with the orange flag that flaps in the wind (called a “Step2 Kid Alert”). Place one at each open single gate and each spot where a fence is down. Place them at a slight diagonal to the passing cattle so the cattle can see his eye and his flag.

  • Also, place a sign every 10 feet in a wide spot you don’t want the cattle to cross, but allows cars and feed trucks to pass through your setup prior to your herd’s movement. These traffic figures also warn others that something is about to happen on the roadway, thus creating a safer situation for everyone.

  • After the route is set up, open your gate and guide the cattle out as you would usually with your hay-feeding truck. We honk the horn when we feed, and this adds to the eating stimulus. Like Pavlov’s dog, the cattle come running.

  • Using their natural instinct to stay with the herd and their eagerness to eat, your magnet of feed will pull the herd down the road. One or two people following behind with rattle paddles can watch for problems.

  • Don’t allow others to put pressure on the cattle from the sides of your route. Keep your dogs with you, and cars or other negative polarity pushers back.

  • Maintain a steady pace while moving the cattle. Some cows will stop to snatch a bite to eat but will want to keep up with the group.

  • Don’t apply a lot of pressure from the back of the herd, just enough to keep any cattle from returning to the original pasture. Just like the magnet’s pull on iron shavings, a positive force will pull better than a negative force can push. Plus, there is less stress on everyone involved.

Using this system, two of us have moved 300 head down a country road, turned at an intersection, crossed over a one-lane bridge and avoided a 100-foot entrance to our ranch to turn into a winter pasture close to the house.

Always ready for work

We’ve affectionately named our child safety signs “Mister Slow.” The signs are inexpensive ($15 to $36 each), easy to place, easy to transport, don’t require workers’ comp insurance and stay where they’re told to stay. You can find them online by doing an Internet search for “Step2 Kid Alert.” If you live in a windy climate, their bases can be filled with sand. We retrieve the “herders” after the cattle are safely in their new pasture and store them in the garage.

It’s important to not leave the signs out where pastured cattle can view them, as cattle will acclimate to them. The novelty of the figures to the cattle is one of their strengths.

We began using the signs to warn people when we were moving cattle across roads. We had a gate that we couldn’t close, so I put Mister Slow in front of it and cattle walked right past him. My husband has since set up four of them on a 100-foot-wide gate that feed trucks can use, while cattle calmly pass by with no problems.

Preplanning is paramount. Before moving cattle, we go through the route to place the Mister Slows. We operate 80 miles northeast of Billings, Mont., and move cattle four times annually. We use two Mister Slows for a road that is 30 to 35 feet wide, and one for a 20-foot-wide gate.

We’ve successfully used this system for two years. One final tip: when you purchase the child signs, the little red flags are wound around the tip of their flag pole. It’s very important that the flag be able to flap in the breeze, so I attach a clothespin to the end of the flag to straighten it out before use.

Hired help is expensive today, and with truck drivers being paid $30 per hour in the nearby oil fields, they’re also tough to find. Mister Slow fits the bill for us, and he’s always available.

Joanie Bergin ranches with her husband, Bill, near Melstone, Mont.


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