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Boys will be Boys...and Cows will be Cows

Posted Jun. 1, 2002

You've likely heard the old adage, "Boys will be boys." Every time I remember someone saying those words, it was to make an excuse for something a boy did. I have a boy of my own, and I've been getting regular payback for what I put my parents through. I know my son acts differently around his cousins and friends than he does around me he will find the easiest way to do something and he has a natural "orneriness" about him. Since I don't have a degree in adolescent psychology, I won't go any further than to say there is a lot of truth to that old adage.

Generally, the same thing can be said about cattle. Just as their friends influence boys, cattle are influenced by their herd-mates. Cattle are also a lot like boys in that they will find the easiest way to do something or to satisfy their particular needs. While a young boy's basic needs might be food, water, more food, horseplay and rest (or time for mending), a cow's basic needs are water, regulation of body temperature, food, rest and rumination.

If a boy can find the first four items on the list in one place, the fifth item normally just happens naturally. Also, if the first four items are available to a boy in one place, that particular place is usually not in the same condition it started out in. If this place is inside your home, someone will have to deal with the mess.

Likewise, if cattle can get all of their basic needs in one place, there will usually be another kind of mess to deal with, and the rancher is left to clean it up. The mess is usually in the form of overgrazed pasture, weeds, soil erosion, poor water quality, degraded wildlife habitat, etc. If a parent corrects a boy, hopefully his behavior will change or you can make sure he stays outside until bedtime. If a rancher continually "cleans up" a mess instead of recognizing the cause and making a change, cows will continue to be cows and the problem will go on, if not get worse.

As stated earlier, a cow has five basic needs that must be satisfied on a regular basis. Obviously, water is very important. On a hot summer day, shade can also be very important for regulating body temperature.

Therefore, water and shade can be a strong attractant to cattle. To top it off, if salt and mineral are provided in close proximity to water and shade, you have created an almost irresistible area for a cow. We see this situation all the time, and it contributes to overgrazed pasture, pond damage, soil erosion, poor water quality and weed encroachment, to name the obvious problems.

To minimize these problems, place feed and mineral away from shade and water. Many times, there are areas of the pasture with desirable grasses that cows have not used much. Moving salt and mineral to these areas allows for better utilization of pastures and reduces problems around water sources. If you have a pond with trees around it, you can't move the pond but you can rotate the cattle, providing you have interior fences to minimize localized grazing distribution problems. Another option is to fence the water source, as in Photo 1.

The most important person in a young boy's life is often his mother. The early lessons a boy gets from his mother can affect how he reacts later in life. The same thing can be applied to cattle. The most important thing to a calf is its mother. It learns what to eat and what not to eat by watching its mother. It also learns how to react to people, and a calf will often learn bad habits from its mother. Rotating cattle to new pasture but allowing a cow to stay in the last pasture because she is too much trouble can cause future management problems if her calf picks up this behavior. Realizing this important relationship early can help you avoid behavioral problems that can adversely affect your operation if the calf is kept in the herd. Remember cattle, as well as children, react to how they are treated.

Another similarity between boys and cows is that they are more comfortable if they have something important to them that they can see and touch. Just like a young boy is comforted by a favorite blanket or toy when he goes to bed, cattle also seem more at ease when something familiar is nearby. If you have large pastures, cattle will often walk the fences to orient themselves to their surroundings. If the pasture is extremely large, this process can adversely affect grazing. A common water point between pastures often will reduce this orientation time, and cattle will begin grazing quicker. Another very good approach that has been used on the Foundation's Pasture Demonstration Farm for many years is to use a portable mineral/fly wipe device (see Photo 2) to keep cattle at ease. This simple device is moved along with the cattle every time they are rotated to a new pasture. The approach facilitates pasture rotation and, if moved to an appropriate part of the pasture, can more evenly distribute livestock grazing within a pasture, thereby improving forage utilization.

Rotational grazing allows you to correct many behavioral problems inherent in cattle. Cattle that rarely have human interaction tend to be more "flighty" than cattle that have frequent human interaction. The cow in Photo 3 jumped into the canal and ran to a more comfortable distance when I got within about 300 feet of her. She was part of a herd that was grazing a 500-acre pasture and encountered people about twice a year. If I had pursued her further, she would have continued to flee, running off body condition provided by the grass she was supposed to be grazing. Rotational grazing can reduce this "flight zone" by putting you and your cattle into contact with one another on a more frequent basis. In most cases, cattle become comfortable enough for you to get within five to 25 feet of them, or in some cases close enough to scratch their noses. This is a definite advantage, because it reduces stress on the animal as well as the person. Once the gate is closed, the cows can get back to grazing, and the rancher can tend to other business.

These are a few of the many ways that understanding cattle behavior, and making appropriate changes, can benefit your grazing operation. Try some of these suggestions if you recognize any of these situations on your operation, and "take a little of the boy out of your cows" in the process.