Aaron shaded his eyes against the bright sunshine, trying to get a better look at the black Angus steer on the other side of the fence.
“I think he’s one of ours,” he said, squinting, “but I can’t quite make out the ear tag.”
I was fairly certain the animal belonged back on our farm, as well. Aaron had rotated our cattle the previous afternoon, into a field adjacent to a neighbor’s pasture, and one of our steers appeared to have jumped the shabby property-line fence in the middle of the night. We watched as the steer mingled into the new herd of cattle, nearly anonymous amongst the other black hides. At the last moment, the animal turned his head, and we could now clearly read the number: 31.
“That’s him,” I said. “We’d better get going. Once he gets settled into that new herd, it’s going to be hard to get him out.”
Compounding the difficulty of this particular situation, there were two enormous Hereford bulls mixed in with the neighbor’s herd, each sporting a rack of wide, pointy horns. Bulls are famously dangerous, and even more so when nothing at all is known of their disposition. The job was going to require some additional delicacy.
[Author’s Note: It’s worth mentioning that, spread out across the course of a year, roughly 50% of everything we do on the farm each day is ‘unexpected.’ From broken water pipes to fractured barn beams, to livestock fence-jumps in the dark of night, we are often faced with circumstances that demand our immediate attention (and intelligence). All of our prior plans get suddenly dropped, and we focus instead on remedying the emergency.
Needless to say, especially when it comes to livestock, we have to know exactly how to interact with the animal, how to interpret their behavior and temperament. In this instance, quick assessments of our neighbor’s unfamiliar fields, as well as distant fences and gates, had to be made in advance. Most importantly, because this was a physically dangerous job, we had to remain calm, yet act decisively. More about this aspect at the end of the story. Now, back to the steer.]
Aaron and I opened the gate adjoining the two properties, and rolled through on our ‘Gator,’ a glorified four-wheeler that served the purpose of a pick-up truck, riding horse and pack mule all rolled into one. We navigated the broad loop back to where our steer had been, but he and his new herd had already moved over the hill, out of sight. Cattle can move deceptively fast, and as we crested the hill we were surprised to see that they had already crossed the distant pasture bottom, and were fording the unfenced creek.
“Oh no,” I said. “Once he gets across the stream, it’s going to be even harder to get him back.”
Indeed, by the time we made it to the bottom of the hill, the entire herd had mucked and splashed their way across, clambering up the steep bank to the opposite side. Our steer now stood on the far bank, regarding us cooly, already appearing content with his new gang. To our dismay, he seemed to have made a special new friend, as well. Standing directly beside him was one of the huge red bulls, sharp horns glinting in the bright morning sunlight.
I glanced at Aaron, who had studied as my apprentice for a year before becoming farm manager. I often told him that he needed to get ‘reps’; that is, repeated opportunities to test and refine his skills. When it came to interacting with animals, there was really no substitute for live field work. Now was the perfect proving grounds.
I smiled, folding my arms over my chest. “He’s all yours.”
Aaron deftly crossed the creek, balancing along a fallen log just downstream of the herd. He had studied the habits of cattle now for well over a year, so he intentionally approached them from a forty-five degree angle, using his trajectory, combined with a simple hand gesture, to neatly divide the steer from the rest of the cattle. All of the cattle, I should say, but the stolid bull, who studied Aaron with his full attention.
Rather than risk tangling with an unfamiliar bull, he pushed both animals through the shallows of the creek, keeping them together at a steady trot towards the property line. With Aaron on one side, and the Gator on the other, he and I ‘steered’ the animals for a half a mile back to our farm, making a quick move at the entrance of the gate to separate our steer from his pointy-horned, lumbering companion.
The entire job took a little over a half hour. To put this in perspective, when I first started farming, an event like this could have easily spanned several days, involving waiting for the precise moment when the steer was near a secure barnyard, then penning him into a distant corral, and eventually loading him onto a trailer and transporting him by truck back to the farm. Now, with the handling methods we have cultivated over the years, it was almost as simple as opening a gate, and pointing the steer in the right direction.
Although it might seem like an over-simplification to compare our methods with Tai Chi, the analogy has some merit. Effective livestock handlers must be able to sense the energy that an animal is giving off at any particular moment, and balance this energy appropriately. Much of what we do is simply a response to what the animal does; with proper technique, an experienced farmer can move hundreds of head of cattle simply by ‘flowing’ their energy in the desired direction. It’s an art form that is as ancient as shepherding itself.
The importance of these proper techniques, evolved from years of practice, really can’t be overstated. When handling animals, body language is a two-way street, and it can vary widely from species to species. What might work for a steer might not translate as well to a flock of sheep, and probably has no relevance at all when it comes to herding pigs. Suffice to say, this all goes triple for dealing with chickens (yes, we occasionally have to herd chickens!), which belong to a biorhythm completely independent of all other farm animals.
This is all just an insider’s glimpse into daily life on a livestock farm, and the artistry it often takes to get our genuine, grass-fed meat onto your plate. To all of our wonderful friends and customers who truly care about how their food is raised, we hope you had a happy Easter!