livestock cows and bulls
Cowboys mustering a herd of livestock cows and bulls (Photo by Hypervision Creative /

By Austin Snedden
Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Austin Snedden
Austin Snedden

Have you ever worked cows with someone that has only worked with big crews? They dive in, they push hard, and they try to bunch the cows tight. When you have experience moving cattle with maybe less than a full crew you really learn your space, you really learn your limitations, and most importantly, you really learn about cows. There are a lot of correlations in managing livestock and governing humans, and often while trailing a big group of cattle I can’t help but think that the decision makers often think of us as livestock. 

There are basically three types of cattle operations that somewhat mimic our political system and policies. The republican style cattle outfit buys the best bulls they can find for the value, they overspend on fencing, they cull hard, and feed the cattle only when they need it. They have a small to moderate size crew and outsource when they need extra help. The democrat cattle operation has a large overhead. They overpay for bulls so that other folks know they care. They have a big crew of full-time staff, they rarely cull cattle based on quality or temperament, and they feed all year long. Finally, you have the libertarian style cow outfit: they have extremely low overhead. They rarely invest in fencing, so the cattle come and go as they please (as well as all the neighbors’ cows). They rarely ever buy outside bulls. Sure, the quality of cattle isn’t that great, and some cows only give you a calf every couple years, but they are tough and affordable. Beyond the overall management style there are multiple ways to get cattle to act to accomplish your management objectives.

Working in an era of high cost of employment, and high liability, many of us cattle producers are trying to achieve more with less help. Working with cattle all boils down to their sphere of influence. A sphere of influence is an invisible circle around every cow, that when crossed, influences the animal to move away. The size of the circle is different for every animal based on their disposition. One animal may have a sphere of influence of fifteen feet, and another may be influenced at three hundred feet, and these spheres all fluctuate based on what the animal is doing, if it is alone or in a herd, if it has a calf, or if it has a pre-existing heightened level of fear. Outside the sphere of influence for a certain distance is what I call the sphere of attention. At the sphere of attention distance, I am not influencing the animals behavior, but I am close enough that the animal is watching me.

If I am moving several hundred head of cattle (or should I say governing?) to a distant field with little help, it is important for me to maximize my influence. If I push too hard on the back of the herd, cattle will bulge out the sides. If I move too fast or too far I might trigger a fear response in the cattle, at which point they might call my bluff and scatter. Maybe if I push too hard they will head for the brush realizing they have me outnumbered. There is a thin line in animals between fear and fight, worst case scenario is, I push too hard and cattle get on the fight. The optimum way is to respect their sphere, and usually they will respect your influence. The problem with the guy that has always worked with an overstaffed crew is that in the back of his head he always thinks there is back up for when he pushes too hard or gets cattle on the fight.

There is no doubt that your most advanced politician could learn about governing by “punchin’” cows. Another time-tested management tool of the shorthanded cowboy, is leading cattle with hay. You can get cattle to follow a feed truck and lead them wherever. I won’t expand on this method because politicians are already very familiar with it. The only shortcomings of the feed truck is if there is better feed in the pasture than the hay on your feed truck, and the other shortcoming is once they follow the feed truck, they will chase your truck every time you drive through, looking for a handout. There are some cattle that won’t follow a feed truck into captivity.

So, what are the lessons we can learn from cows on how to govern people? Let’s say you have a nationwide pandemic, maybe you can lead people into a “stay-at-home order” with a feed truck, but do you have enough feed to keep them there? Are your corrals strong enough to hold them when they want to go look for feed? When a governor tells people to stay off a public beach, does he have enough cowboys to keep them off? When a governor won’t cull the bad ones that are thieves and worse, and turns them out with the rest of the herd, don’t be surprised when us productive cattle head for the brush. When a governor tells family business owners to “shut it down” when their whole life is invested, often several generations, that is like messing with the calf of a protective mother cow. You better have some darn good cowboys on quick horses. If you push too hard or too fast, you might find you don’t have enough cowboys to hold the herd.

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