Cattle psychology: how to accustom steers to a new property

by Farmer Liz
Since we purchased our first mob of steers for Cheslyn Rise, we have had many occasions to consider what our cattle are thinking and to try to picture the world from their perspective.

For the first week that they were on our property, we followed everyone's advice and kept the steers in our wooden stock yard and fed them round bales of sorghum and kept their water troughs topped up.  After a week we decided that they had got to know us, as they had become confident enough to eat round bales when we were in the yard with them, and we had checked all the fences, so we decided it was time to open the gate and let them out into the first 25 acre paddock.

The next day when we went back to the property we found that the cattle had broken some fences and ended up split into two groups, we'll call them the "A" team and the "B" team.  The A team, 9 steers, hadn't managed to get out of the 25 acre paddock, but the B team of 8 steers had got through a fence and found themselves on the far side of the property (as we hadn't thought to close any other gates!).  We fixed the broken fences, closed various gates and tried to herd the B team back into the 25 acre property, but they took off.

On day two, we were rung by a neighbour to say that some of the cattle were out on the road!  Disaster!  We drove to the property in a mild panic (me not Farmer Pete), but the four steers from the A team who had got out were waiting near the fence with the rest of the their mates, like they just wanted to get back into their paddock, fortunately we were able to herd them back through the broken fence and fix it up (with me running hard up the flank to turn them at the right time and Farmer Pete on the rear, took me 10 min to recover!).  When we went looking for the B team we found that they had busted through a bush gate and were back where we found them the day before, standing with the the neighbour's cows (but still in our paddock).

.. going ...
On day three the A team were in the stock yards finishing their round bale!  And the B team were standing around looking for their mates.....

We went to thank the kind neighbour who had alerted us to our escapees and he gave us some tips.  On the drive home, we talked about why the cattle were busting gates and fences and started to think about how the cattle were feeling.

Firstly, they had probably very recently been separated from their mothers, possibly just before getting on the truck to the sale yards, and they had possibly also been castrated at the same time.  They had spent about 24 hours in the sale yards, with 1600 other cattle, and it was SO loud, everyone was mooing.  Then they got dropped off at our place.  They are probably wondering what they are doing at our property, where there mummies are (and where their testicles are!), and so the natural reaction when the gate is opened is to freak out a bit and be very jumpy.  Combine that with wild dogs, which our neighbour told us have been hanging around, and the poor steers probably haven't been without their mummies at night before, let alone without their mummies at night with wild dogs sniffing around, no wonder they are running around and crashing through fences.  Our neighbour also pointed out that they don't know our property yet, they don't know where the fences and gates are, so if they feel threatened by dogs, of course they will take off and run as fast as they can and might go through some fences in the dark.

... gone.
When the steers kept escaping and going crazy our first thought was to round them up again (somehow!) and get them back in the stock yards, at least then we would know they were safe.  But after talking to our neighbour we realised that the poor steers just need to settle down, learn their way around our property and get comfortable there, if we got them back into the yards we would only have to repeat the settling down process again later.  Once they get used to the location of fences and gates, and realise that the wild dogs aren't so tough, then we should all be ok.  We should also tie plastic bags onto gates that haven't been closed before, so that cattle can hear the gates in the dark and not smash into them.

Really, the steers are just like first year uni students who have just left home.  What they need is a good residential advisor to look after them at first, such as an old cow (no offence to RAs!).  The old cow could show them around the property, show them where to get a drink, where to get a feed and where the boundaries are.  We don't have any old cows on the property (apparently a donkey is good too), but we will be looking for a suitable animal for future mobs of steers!

In the meantime our neighbour suggested that we bribe the cattle with hay, so we have been giving them a little hay every afternoon and hoping that they will get used to us providing delicious hay and start following us, so that we can eventually reunite the A and B teams!

Its made me realise that when cattle (or any animals) aren't doing what you want them to do, they might not just be naughty animals.  They might actually be scared or bored or hungry or lonely, and thinking through the reason for their behaviour will help to work out what to do about it.  If we just assumed that the cattle were naughty and locked them up in the yards, they would still have been frightened when they were let out the second time, but because we realised the reasons for them breaking fences, we figured out that it would be best to leave them to get used to the paddocks, and now that they know where everything is, they have been no trouble at all.

Have you ever wondered what your cattle (or other animals) are thinking?

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