Patience and silence are major virtues in successful stockherders

Staff report

BUHL, Idaho: Joel Herrmann is probably the closest thing there is to a professional stockherder in southern Idaho. For seven years he has worked herding large yearling and cow-calf herds in steep, rocky uplands and on the desert floor. He said the secret to success as a stockherder is simple - never wear a watch.

"The worst thing that can happen to a herd of cows is a cowboy on a schedule," Joel said. "To be a successful herder you have to constantly tell yourself to slow down. There's no schedule to meet. You've got all day to get it done."

Joel said being in a hurry around livestock always makes the job take longer. The herd scatters. The cows lose their calves and will go looking for them, Invariably, the cowboy becomes frustrated and goes home in a very bad mood.

"Work should be fun, not frustrating. I refuse to work in the old cowboy way anymore. I'll leave ranching altogether before I go back to the normal cowboy way of handling livestock. You need to get a handle on yourself before you try to get a handle on your cows."

He said in addition to patience, you had to learn the virtue of silence. "You've got to learn to work quietly. Yelling and hollering has no place in herding. It stresses you and sure as heck stresses the cows."

Joel has attended the Bud Williams stockhandling school and has studied Ray Hunt's methods of breaking horses as well as visiting as many old-time stockherders as he can. He said his typical work was herding 1500 yearlings on a 100,000 acre upland range. He prefers to do this alone.

"It's all basic physics. If you push on animals, they will always push back. But, if you'll lead, they'll follow. If you get into a situation where you don't know what to do, go sit on a rock and just think. We have the predator instinct to want to push and hold on. You've got to learn to back off."

He said people who want to learn herding should go to a Bud Williams school and hear what he is saying first-hand. He said a lot of what is passed off as "Bud Williams technique" is no such thing and is often dead wrong.

However, Joel said to not be intimidated by how good Bud Williams is and the amazing things he can do with animals. "You don't have to be as good as Bud Williams to be a good herder."


With his slow herding technique, Joel said he can manage to put nearly two pounds on a steer in a wet year, or a half pound less in a dry year. This high daily gain is a result of the animal having a lot of selection of previously ungrazed feed every day. Often the steer will only graze an area once in a season.

He uses Border collies and their crosses as stockdogs. He prefers to let the dogs follow their instincts and does not instruct them much.

While he has a horse he leads it most of the time and prefers to herd on foot. "The only reason you need a horse is to go home on it at night. Herding 1500 head every day, my horse stays fat. Itís not hard work when you do it right."

Joel said his daily "commute" to the herd on horseback can be as much as 13 miles. He wants to be with his herd at sunrise. Often this means leaving his base camp as early as 3:30 AM. "When I show up every morning you can almost hear them saying 'Oh boy, fresh feed.'"

After letting them have their morning graze and fill up he trails them to the water reservoir so as to arrive by 9:00 AM. He said all that is necessary is to get a small group going in the direction you want them to go and the rest will follow. Once the lead steers see the water, Joel backs off and lets the rest of the herd gradually graze and drift up to the water. He said a major benefit of herding was that smaller stock water reservoirs can be used as the cattle will only use the tank (pond) for two or three days. Joel said once a stock tank had become muddy and fouled he changed to using another water reservoir. In cool weather and lush grass, Joel's steers will only often get to water every two days.

Where there was once an overgrazed zone that extended as far as two to three miles from each water reservoir, grass now grows right to the tank's edge. Also foot rot problems which were severe under continuous grazing have disappeared under herding.


He said you should never force your cattle off water. "A cow drinks twice before she is full. If you force her away before that second drink, she's going to fight you to get back to water for that second drink." He said cattle that are trained to herding never lay around the water hole all day like cattle that are continuously grazed. They want to get back out and graze because the feed is so fresh and good.

He said under slow, high gain herding, the primary task of the herder is to get the herd facing in the direction you want them to go and then to let them go. "Stockers get paid to eat. You have to let them graze pretty much where they want to and give them a lot of selection." He will mentally divide a large property into 20 paddock subdivisions based upon geographical features. He said that herding was exactly like any other form of Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) except you are not using fences.

"With herding, flies are your back fence," he said. "They are always back with the manure and are very effective in preventing the cattle from grazing the regrowth before it has rested. The cattle are always wanting to move away from the flies."

He said herding is much easier in flat country that in rocky uplands. Often in the uplands there is only one way up to a grassy park or plateau and only one way down. He said keeping a large herd together in a country with deep ravines and draws is challenging.


He said fresh weaned calves are the easiest class to herd as they haven't learned to be afraid of humans yet. "People say you can't herd cattle as tight as sheep, but you sure can with weaners." Cows and calves are the next easiest class and yearlings were the worst.

He said with dry cows you could reign them in and force them to get a little more out of the country than you can with stockers. It is much easier if the cows are taught to herd before they calve. He said calving was no problem as long as the herd was moving slowly. This is no problem when calving is timed to the peak flush of feed, as it should be.

Interestingly, herded cows tend to calve in the middle of the herd rather than seeking isolation. They also invariably calve near the middle of the day. Both of these traits offers excellent predator protection for the new-born calves. (No predator will penetrate a herd of animals.) Joel said the new-born calves just jump up and go with their mothers. He said it was no stress for a newborn calf to walk five miles its first day.

Similarly, weaning does not have to be stressful if the cows and calves can see each other. Joel says he puts the cows and calves in a corral and lets them settle down for two to three hours. He then separates the calves from their mothers with just the corral fence between them where they can see, smell and hear each other. Joel said since he adopted this fence-weaning technique he has not had as much as one runny nose on a calf.

"The beauty of (herding) is that every cow on earth acts exactly like every other cow. There are no surprises. That's what makes this job so easy. I've gained 20 pounds since I quit cowboying and became a herder."

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