COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Oct. 18, 2012

Ed Olfert
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Sometimes it’s best to relax and trust the herd



When I was a boy, we lived in a farm yard that was situated roughly in the middle of a large irregularly shaped pasture. This pasture was, creatively, known as "the pasture.” Within a few years, dad bought a half section of land about a mile west. Included in this land was an area that was so infested with bush and sloughs that it was deemed unbreakable. We put a three-strand fence around it, and it became “the other pasture."

A plan was formulated that in spring, after new calves had been born in the home pasture, a pasture that was struggling to recover after the intensive grazing of the summer before, the herd would be moved to the other pasture. This would give the home pasture much needed recovery time, as well as give the cows some excellent feed during their period of heavy milk production.

Dad assured mom that moving the herd would be no problem. He started up the old Jeep, poured a little ground grain on the endgate, and drove over to the pasture gate. He began to call. "Come boss!" Eventually, the cows took notice. The sound of that vehicle, that voice, had been connected to their feeding all winter. It was worth a look.

But in the excitement, many cows missed the gate, and bellowed their way up and down the inside of the pasture fence. Others were separated from their young ones and bellowed anxiously from calf to calf. Still others stepped through the gate in pursuit of the elusive taste of chop, and then forgot about that taste completely when they realized they were standing on new ground, with sprigs of brome grass never before nibbled. Chopped grain on the Jeep was forgotten.

Eventually, the bellowing bovine mass was eased out of the gate. At this point, the anxiety level went a notch or two higher. There was no safety plan, no fall back if the animals suddenly spooked. We had no horses to round them up, (not that we wanted any) nor did we yet have the legion of internally combusted Hondas that would appear in years ahead. To the north and south, there were many miles of open country, willow bluffs and thick poplar stands, with no fences to restrain a stampede.

The person out front was central to our trek. But for the rest of us, working on foot, there were lessons as well. A relaxed presence seemed crucial. As the herd could sense trust, they could also feel anxiety. If a cow wandered out of line for a distance in search of a few mouthfuls of succulent stinkweed, it was counterproductive to roughly and hurriedly force her back into formation. The "spook" factor would be raised significantly. Occasionally a cow realized that her calf was not in fact trailing at her heels, and began to run frantically up and down the straggling row. It was best to allow that to happen.

On we journeyed. At the head end, a cow occasionally tried to run ahead of the Jeep, trying to find her own adventure. At the tail, others were quite prepared to stop, to decide that this place, with its weeds or wild grass was as good as it needed to be. Repeatedly, we reminded each other, "take your time, let the herd set the pace, slower will get us there quicker."

We arrived. The Shorthorn herd streamed into the other pasture as one large red body.

We gathered, dirty, sweaty, leaning against the rails of the small corral, and watched. Cows and calves alike raced excitedly into the beckoning prairie wool, then came to an abrupt halt to begin grazing. We realized that the bounty of this pasture would require adjustment, and until that adjustment was learned, would result in bloated stomachs and squirting excrement. But that discipline would come. Cows and calves alike would grow sleek and contented.

Parables are cool.

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