Strong leadership is important, even among grazing animals, says Dick Ryan of Spring Creek Farms, Lodi, WI.
Ryan, with sons Kory and Shane, annually runs 1,000-1,500 stocker animals in an intensive rotational grazing setup. Identifying, training and placing leader animals in grazing groups is an integral part of their work routine throughout the year.
“A good leader calf keeps the rest of the group doing what it's supposed to be doing — eating grass, drinking water and moving from one pasture to another in a calm, quiet manner,” explains Ryan.
For the most part, the Ryans select potential leader animals as new loads of cattle are delivered to their farms. Occasionally, though, they'll spot prospects on visits to other farms or herds.
“We look for animals that display dominance,” says Ryan. “They're the ones that are always out front. They want to be first at the feed bunk or water tank. When the herd is being moved, they want to be the first ones in the next pasture.”
Leader animals should also be very people-friendly. If an operation makes use of stock dogs (the Ryans have border collies), the leader cattle should be canine-friendly as well.
“A good leader calf instinctively responds to what you want it to do,” says Ryan.
At Spring Creek, leader candidates are worked for about a half-hour per day over an eight- or nine-month period.
“We start out by hand feeding them and just spending time with them,” says Ryan. “Next, we let them start working with the dogs. It's mostly a matter of getting them used to how you want things done.”
About one out of four of the animals initially identified becomes a leader calf. Leaders are placed with a grazing group of 50-500 animals. Typically, leaders are a year or so old when placed. The Ryans aim to have one leader animal for every 100-150 head.
“We've had as many as nine leaders in a group. But even then, it usually boils down to one or two top guys,” says Ryan.
Once placed with a group, the lead animal's primary job is to be calm.
“He (or she) basically takes charge,” Ryan explains. “If you pick the right animal and train it right, the others in the group get the idea that, as long as they're around it, everything is going to be okay. If it heads for the far end of a pasture, they move with it. If it heads for the water tank, they follow.”
Individual leader animals usually stay with the Ryans for several successive grazing seasons. Six years has been the longest stint for a single animal at Spring Creek. That's a big plus in a rotational grazing system. A leader familiar with the pasture system can bring a herd to a new paddock with little fuss or disturbance.
“When you get a really good one, you don't want to give it up.”
The payback from leader animals in a beef or dairy grazing herd? Good ones can reduce labor requirements. Calm cattle generate fewer “fence challenges” and require less work when moved from pasture to pasture.
Also, a major challenge when working with beef stockers is to get them into a daily routine as quickly as possible. With a good leader, newcomers don't spend energy jockeying for social status within the herd. The energy can instead be directed toward weight gain.
The bottom line, says Ryan, is that a group of calm, well-led cattle will outgain a nervous, disorganized group.
“Some experts estimate that easily spooked calves will gain a quarter of a pound less per day than calm animals. I think the difference is probably greater than that. Over the course of a year, it adds up.”