How to Drive Cow and Calf Pairs

In the past four columns we’ve talked about how to properly drive cattle. However, driving pairs deserves special attention because this could well be the No. 1 cattle handling problem on ranches; that is, everyone has trouble, at least sometimes.

The Problem 

The primary problem when driving pairs is cows and calves getting separated, which often leads to runbacks, or at least to very unhappy, stressed out cattle and people. But it needn’t be that way. Cows and calves trail all over by themselves and don’t have runbacks, right? Have you ever seen a runback when humans weren’t around messing with them? So, that tells us that trailing out is natural to cattle—they already know how to do it—so think how nice it would be if we could stimulate that natural behavior.

The Goal

So, when driving pairs our goal is (a) for cows to think of their calves first, (b) to stay mothered-up, and (c) to trail out properly so they don’t become unmothered.

The Solution:
1. Foster the herd instinct. 

Imagine how much easier it would be to trail our cattle out if they preferred to be in a herd. As a prey animal, bovine want to be in herd unless we do something to make the herd an unpleasant place for them to be. So, the main idea in fostering or rekindling the herd instinct is it’s not something we actively teach them; rather, it’s a by-product of working our animals properly so the herd is a nice place to be. Unfortunately, on some conventional handling operations, the herd can become a place cattle don’t want to be because of mishandling.

2. Teach them to walk calmly through gates past a handler.

This is something we should do with our cows before they calve. We should not let them get in the habit of rushing through gates uncontrolled. Why? It will really hurt us when it comes to trailing out pairs because too many calves will get unmothered. A basic rule should be when someone goes up to open a gate they should stay there and regulate the flow of cattle through it. However, an exception might be very young calves—if they are overly sensitive to the presence of the gate person and don’t want to go past him or her.  

3. Approach properly.

Driving pairs begins with the approach. In general, approaching cows and calves is all about establishing a non-threatening contact, not over-pressuring the cow so she takes off without her calf, and keeping them in a normal frame of mind so they stay together. Cows can’t handle a head-on approach emotionally; it’s like a car coming directly at us on the highway. So, the way to approach them is with a straight-line, oblique angle until we intersect their pressure zone, as depicted in Figure A.

direction to drive cow calf pairs Drovers
The way to approach cow-calf pairs is with a straight-line, oblique angle until we intersect their pressure zone, as depicted in Figure A.

4. Start properly.

After we’ve approached properly we need to start them properly; if we don’t, we’re asking for trouble. According to legendary animal handler Bud Williams, who died in 2012, “When you have trouble with cows and calves it’s almost always due to how you start ’em.” 
It doesn’t take any longer to start cows and calves properly than starting them improperly, and it will save a lot of time in the long run. So, how do we start pairs properly?

  • If they are not already, get them mothered-up before starting them. Do that by disturbing them just enough to get the cows and calves looking for each other.  
  • A major mistake after they are mothered-up is starting them too soon or too fast, and trying to get too much movement to start with. The truth is if we hurry, it will be slow due to problems we create.
  • To start them, slowly zigzag in and out so the cow has time to collect herself, take her calf and start moving. This way, she’s made a mental decision to go, so she’s happy—we haven’t forced her to go.
  • Once they move, let them move away so they experience that important release of pressure. 

5. Drive properly. 

Once we’ve approached and started pairs properly, we need to drive them properly. Some things to keep in mind are:

  • Don’t push directly from the rear; rather, zigzag.
  • With older pairs, start a lead and use the power of the draw created by good movement. If a cow has good movement, her calf will follow (see Figure B). To properly start a lead, do not carve off a small bunch in the hopes the rest will follow; rather, work the side in such a way that you convince the cattle to want to move past you (e.g., by doing reverse-parallel). For younger pairs it will probably work better for most people to drive from the rear.  
  • Let them string out (see Figure B).
  • Don’t ride up the sides within their pressure zone, which slows down or stops anything you pass. 
  • Make smooth, gradual turns. If turns are too tight the cattle get mashed together and turned crossways and they’ll get unmothered, unhappy and uncooperative.
  • Control their flow through gates, as depicted in the photo on page 20. Besides not letting the cows rush through and leave their calves, when they go through a gate some calves will hit the gate post and go down the fence as the cows go through, which a rider can prevent.
  • This isn’t to imply we can’t drive cows and calves from the rear; we can if we do it properly (see Figure C).