Trailing Cattle

cattle trailing up a hill

Driving cattle into a new pasture can be frustrating, but trailing them helps ease a herd through the gate effortlessly.

Just like in a fire drill, exiting a pasture should be done in a quiet, orderly fashion. According to rancher John Welch, cattle pass through a gate more efficiently when they are lined out and walking at a comfortable pace, not bunched together.

“Having them shaped up before you get to the gate is worth a lot,” says Welch, who runs cattle on pastures from Montana to Texas, and whose family ranch headquarters is near La Junta, Colorado. “If you mob the cattle coming up to that gate, there’s all kinds of things working against you. You don’t have any influence on the leaders. And if you’ve got a big mass of cattle, when you finally get them going through they all rush and might knock down a corner post or [injure themselves]. So preparation is 90 percent of making them go easy through that gate.”

Welch says he prefers to trail cattle rather than drive them, meaning that he wants them to travel in a long, strung-out line, with riders positioned evenly around them. Riders in front are at the point. The position behind them, near the front and on each side of the herd, is the swing. Next is the flank, and
bringing up the rear is the drag.

“I like to have the cattle traveling about four or five abreast, and somebody on the point so they don’t get too strung out, especially if we’re trailing yearlings,” Welch says. “If you have people relatively close to all the cattle all the time, you can control them. You can keep them moving and can control their velocity and direction.”

cowboys trailing cattle
Trailing cattle through a corner gate runs smoothly with riders positioned at the drag (bottom left), fl ank (bottom right) and swing (top right). Here, the swing riders give the cattle room to go through the gate on their own. Other riders in the new pasture hold up the herd so cows and calves can pair up.

Having control of the herd’s pace and course simplifies passage through a gate. Welch typically sends one of the point riders ahead to open the gate well before the cattle arrive, and then that rider returns to continue regulating the pace. Once at the gate, the swing riders direct the first 15 to 25 cows
through the opening.

“I have those two men ease in behind the leaders and then move them through the gate,” Welch says. “And then the rest of the cattle just flow. It just primes the pump.”

Welch adds that the swing riders should pass through in order to hold up the leaders while the rest of the herd enters the new pasture.

John Welsch
John Welch and his family run a cattle operation based in La Junta, Colorado. Photo by Ross Hecox

“I see crews with eight riders doing good—strung out along the sides of the cattle, but they don’t want to go through the gate and stop the flow,” he says. “Well, by the time you get them all through, you have cattle scattered out in this new pasture.”

Whether leaving the herd there or moving the cattle on to another pasture, most cattlemen advise holding them up after going through a gate. Otherwise, they have to be gathered again before heading to the next pasture, or cows lose track of their calves.

“You have to get around and hold them until they pair up,” Welch says. “If not, you’re going to get cows and calves running and bawling and trying to go back where they came from. If it’s cows and calves we always hold them for 30 minutes or so to let them get paired up. And of course, if the cattle are going into a pasture they’ve never been before, we trail them to water because they may not find it.”

Welch says that when cattle pass through a gate quietly, it’s a credit to the crew’s patience and stockmanship skills.

“It’s all a balancing act,” he says. “You don’t want the cattle moving too fast or too slow. You just want them comfortably walking.

“The worst thing I see is when coming up to a gate everybody starts hollering and screaming in the back.

Well, all a cow knows is that for some reason these people are attacking her. She might not know there’s a gate there, and she’s not going to look away from them to see an open gate. She’s going to look back at this enemy attacking her. So a lot of times if you’ll just let her look, before long she sees the hole to go through. And before long, they’re all going.

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Western Horseman.

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