question — cows won’t stay in the fence

0624191634cWe pass on a question we received about fence issues:

Hi! I attended your classes at the Mother Earth News Fair in NC in the spring. I’m attempting to rotate 4 yearling heifers daily but if I cut the pen down to one day’s size they get to wrestling and knock the whole thing down. Then they walk right out. I had to go out of town and gave them two days’ worth and noticed it didn’t happen then. Do you have any suggestions for this problem? Also, I’m having trouble finding an automatic waterer that doesn’t leak. Any suggestions? Thanks for your help and I really enjoyed the classes!

Hi, Amber,

Good to hear from you.  We’re glad you enjoyed the classes; we love to talk about grass and grazing.

How long have these four heifers been together? Sounds like they are pretty competetive with one another. If they have been together for less than a month, I’d expect that the shenanigans will level off soon, when they’ve got their pecking order worked out; but if they’ve already had time to get sorted and they are still doing that much shoving, then my first guess would be that they need a slightly bigger paddock, if not for the sake of forage, then for the sake of elbow room.  Is there, maybe, one bad actor in there? One heifer who just likes throwing her weight around? We had a Dexter heifer with horns who was just a pain in the backside to all and sundry until we polled her, and not so sweet even then; she made the whole herd wish it could get away.  Pulling out the bully can be a big help when you’re trying to settle a herd.

What shape are you making your paddocks? The situation you describe — shoving in a close space leading to broached fences — is to be expected  now and then, but not as a regular thing;.  However, if your paddocks are long and narrow — as mine are right now, because I need the cows to do a lot of trampling to increase impact — then it’s much easier for a shove to send an animal into the fence. Narrow lanes back to water are notorious for this kind of problem.  Maximizing room to scuffle in means more space between the animals and the fence.

How many joules is your charger? and is it doing its job? You’ve probably already gotten the fence tester out there and made sure the charge is carrying all the way through the fence, but, if not, that would be a good thing to check. If I have a group of animals that is testing fence, I put them on our most powerful charger — 3 joules — and make sure that I’m not wasting charge on parts of the fence with no animals in them; or , in other words, I just charge the paddock line, not any uninvolved perimeter fence. When I’ve had cows that habitually took out fence — like the ones that like to head-rub on step-in posts — I’ve always been able to alter their mindset in this way, with some concentrated joules.

And there’s always the question of contentment!  If you’re moving cows every 24 hours, and they know when you are coming, generally they are happy to wait for moving time, even if the forage is all eaten.  Still, there may be other things they’re wanting.  When I have fidgety cows, I make sure they have plenty to eat, plus water, salt, minerals, and shade, all on their own side of the fence.  Could your animals be a little hungry?  How hard are you having them hit these paddocks? How much residual is left after one day? In our early days of grazing we thought a lot of trampled grass was ‘waste’, and kept our paddocks small and our post-grazing height on the low side.  For several years now, however, we’ve erred more on the side of leaving lots of litter — and I mean LOTS — with the result that now if we have a fence-testing cow, we don’t have to ask ourselves if she was hungry.  (And the tons of organic matter we’re adding to the soil are one of the best benfits of good grazing.)

And don’t think that setting up 2-day paddocks isn’t a working solution, either. If that’s the most sensible way to keep them from taking out the fence, you can always switch to two-day paddocks. The impact will be a little less even, but you don’t have to worry that they’ll be grazing new growth, since nothing is going to regrow in such a short period. If you do elect to go to 2-day paddocks, though, you want to keep a good eye on that impact and make sure they’re not just overgrazing the clover and walking around the fescue and thistles.

As for automatic waterers, is yours leaking because it can’t handle the PSI in your hose, or is it just a connection that’s not tight enough? There’s one spot on the convent land where we occasionally hook up to city water, and the pressure is immense, much too high for our Little GIant stock valves. We have to fill our tanks and then close down the spigot almost completely, which doesn’t actually decrease the final pressure, but at least ensures that if something leaks, it leaks slowly! It helps when we have the water tank at a higher elevation than the spigot, so back pressure is partly offset by gravity.    For the rest of the farm, we mostly use Hudson valves and Jobe floats, which work well with our low pressure captured water systems, and only leak if we don’t get them tightened down after each move (moving tanks often loosens our hose connections).  Of course, sometimes a valve leaks because there’s some detritus caught in it — a piece of grass, maybe.  Once we found a newt in one of our valves —

Thanks for reaching out.  We love hearing from folks who are using their acres so well, for food, for fertility, for ecology — bless you!

And here’s the follow-up:

Hi Shawn and Beth,

Just wanted to thank you for your reply. It was much more thorough than I expected which was a real treat. Yes, it’s one heifer that actually gets shoved into the fence. They have all been together for over 6 months but something about her makes everybody want to shove her. I only started the rotation about two weeks ago and I had them graze the poorest area first so the weeds there would get trampled first. So there wasn’t quite as much grass but definitely plenty. Now that they are on waist high thick grass they seem much more content. No bawling or even eating close to the line, I noticed. I made the pens roughly 60 x 60 right now. I feel like it’s too big because you can see they are mostly stomping or laying down the grass rather than eating it but if they don’t stay in the assigned area at all that seems worse than the animal impact not being concentrated to that area. The first that they kept knocking over was probably closer to 50 x 50. I agree that it has something to do with this one cow because they used to do this to her in the open field also. In about 30 days the two oldest will go out with the momma cows and bull so this should definitely settle down the (other) two, I would think.

I have tightened the pieces on the waterer to the point I’m afraid of breaking them. It is county water and the pressure definitely plays a part. I move the tank everyday with the pen. It is connected by a hose to a spigot. Even now the hose looks swollen at the metal neck with the reduced pressure. I think I’m going to try taking the pressure down even more. I’m trying to get my ducks in a row before I bring my full grown cows and bull to the farm.

Lastly the cows I have are all larger breeds. I was currently basing the pen size on a 25 x 25 foot per cow calf unit but I thought I better ask if that is for a cow of any size or in my case the average cow will weigh 1400 lbs. Some are bigger and some are smaller but I’d say that’s a good average. I remembered you mentioned that it would be different if you had a larger breed animal. Do you have a recommendation for the amount of space I should alot for each unit?

Thanks for all your help! I have been spreading your practices to anyone who will listen so maybe one day I can get more people on board.

Hi, Amber,

Oh, yes, the size of a paddock is going to change with breed/size of animal; also with sex, state of lactation or gestation, time of year, etc. In fact, it’s a moving target. What you are actually watching for is degree of impact, and that’s going to be different according to lots of variables:  what forages were in the paddock, what was the weather like while the animals were in there, and so on.  Your paddocks sound like they might be on the small side, which may be just what you want, but don’t worry when bigger paddocks make LOTS of trampled forage, that’s your future soil.

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