Sometimes I have nightmares about fences down, cows getting out, and chasing cows around trying to get them back in the pasture. The first few times cattle got out on our farm were pretty stressful. It doesn’t happen as often these days, but a cow or calf still does get out now and then. We’ve learned over the years that these problems can be minimized, and when they happen, it really isn’t a big deal anymore. Below are some things we’ve learned.
Design Fences to Minimize Problems
Good fences are always a good investment. By installing quality materials and properly designing a fence you can prevent animals from getting out in the first place (most times). We’ve learned that using high quality high tensile electric fence with good insulators, grounding system and energizer make a huge difference. A good hard shock every now and again reminds a cow or calf that the fence is a strong barrier not to be messed with! If cows are walking through or stepping over fence wires, a poor electrical setup or inadequate animal training are your problems. The other big problem is keeping the wires up. If a wire’s on the ground or broken in two pieces, cows are gonna get out! Our biggest reason for down and broken fence wires the first few years was breakage by moose. We have lots of moose here in northern Maine, and they’d plow through every electric fence we put up. We found ourselves constantly checking for moose damage during periods of high moose activity, as problems seemed inevitable. After hearing grazing expert Jim Gerrish talk about fence design, I learned that lowering our top wire to 30-32″ off the ground (from our previous 36″+) allows moose to step over the fence rather than plow through it with their body.
I also learned to replace my wooden fence posts with flexible PVC posts, and the fence now acts more like a rubber band, flexing when it’s hit and bouncing back rather than snapping posts and taking down fence lines. Just changing fence design cut down our moose problems by at least 75%.
Even with the best fence, you still need to check it regularly, especially before moving cattle to a new pasture. We had a tree come down on a fence during a wind storm in one of our pastures, and we moved 50 head of yearlings into the pasture without checking on it. About half the herd ended up a mile down the road, grazing on the neighbor’s lawn! Now we make sure to check fences before moving cattle!
Know When it’s a Problem
I know some old cattlemen who didn’t mind cows getting out. One in particular didn’t care much for fence upkeep, and when the pasture got overgrazed the cows made their way out in some neighboring ground. I’d have been stressed out, wondering where my cows were and worrying about trouble they’d cause if it were my herd, but it worked for him. The main thing is to understand when cows getting out is a problem, and when it isn’t. In most cases I don’t want a cow outside of my fences. I want to keep good neighbors, avoid liability issues, and have properly trained cows who know where to stay. That said, when we have a bunch of newborn calves, they’re prone to slip the fence a few times a day. Mom gets mad, calls them, and eventually they come back through. After the first couple weeks they’ve been shocked enough times to understand what fences are, and we’ve saved a lot of trouble by just letting them be. If we have a single adult cow that consistently crosses a good fence, we have an animal problem, and cattle that don’t respect fences don’t belong on our farm. The offending animal is on the truck to auction the first chance we get.
Keep the Stress Level DOWN!
When a cow or calf gets out it’s hard not to let your stress level go through the roof. My first reaction is usually a quick spike in frustration and an immediate desire to run over and force the cow (or cows) back in. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it turns a simple predicament into an hours long nightmare. Getting a cow frustrated and confused by yelling and running around makes it more difficult for them to understand what you want them to do. A poor reaction on your part can result in fear for the animal, and often times they’ll take off on a run, even farther away from where you need them to be. Oftentimes other people are around to help, but adding more people to the situation can increase animal stress and fear and make things worse. By calmly getting behind the animal and adding gentle pressure toward the pasture you want them back in, you can encourage them to return to the pasture as if it were their idea. Sometimes a few quick boosts in pressure – getting closer, waving an arm, or a simple “tsstt tsstt” noise can help, but once the animal starts moving the right way, ease up.
Use Cows’ Instincts to Work FOR You
Cattle are herd animals and they are designed to find safety and comfort with other cattle. If a cow is out and the rest of the herd is still in the pasture, she’ll naturally want to get back in there. You can use this to your advantage by getting behind her and applying a little pressure in the direction of the rest of the herd, via the opening in the fence. Sometimes the herd isn’t in a direct line back through where the cow got out. That can be a problem, as you have to get the animal to move away from the herd (and perceived safety) to get through the fence break or gate, and back in. Sometimes a little grain or feed supplement can work here, especially with a bull or feeder steer, but usually the animal is more interested in getting back with the herd and won’t care about the food. This can be super frustrating….trust me, I’ve spent HOURS trying to get a lone cow or calf back where they don’t want to go! We learned a quick, simple trick to fix this. It seems like more work, but is almost foolproof and saves you a TON of time and effort in the long run. Attract the rest of the herd (or even a small group) toward the fence break or gate by calling them or leading them with a bucket of grain, alfalfa pellets or other supplement. Once you have them where you want the cow to go, get behind the cow and apply pressure to move her toward the group. In my experience this works every time. Sometimes you’ll have a situation where a calf won’t go where it needs to to get back to its mother. The solution is similar in this case: let the cow out to the area where the calf is until they reunite, then lead them back to the herd together.
Train Your Cows Ahead of Time
Even though fence breaks can be minimized, they are still inevitable, and occasionally you’ll have to get cattle back in. By training the animals in the herd ahead of time, you can make this process relatively quick and painless. We regularly move our animals to fresh new pastures, and call them each time we make a move. They associate our call with fresh green grass and often come running when we call! We also feed a few treats from time to time (in our case a grass-fed approved supplement) to habituate them to associate a 5 gallon pail with food, and in some cases, mineral. So when a group of cows gets out, we can usually get them back in by simply getting close, calling them, and slowly walking back toward the pasture. Sometimes, particularly if there’s lush green grass where they’ve gotten out, an additional person trailing behind the group is necessary to apply some pressure to the stragglers. Remember those yearlings that were a mile down the road? After getting them rounded up, they followed me all the way back to the farm, walking down the road behind me while the neighbor trailed in his pickup truck and snapped pictures.