This cattle handling technique looks at a low stress method for moving a small herd of cattle.

Before we can discuss the handling method we need to understand how livestock respond to variations in environmental stimulus.

In the predator/prey relationship, cattle are the prey. Because of this, cattle will respond to stimulus they perceive as a potential threat. How your cattle respond to the threat depends on the intensity of the threat and the perceived danger of the threat as perceived by the animal.

Intensity of the threat: is the threat small, quiet, and still, or is the threat large, loud, and moving quickly

Perceived danger: You may have two handlers present. Both handlers are about the same size and are both quiet and still. Your livestock however are only familiar with one of the handlers and know them to be a low threat. Your livestock will likely perceive the unknown handler as a larger threat simply because they are unfamiliar with them.

Note: The response to a threat can vary from animal to animal, and from day to day. As a livestock handler you must be vigilant in your observations. Not only will this allow you to work your livestock with less stress, but it can also protect you from putting yourself in danger.

How do livestock react to escalating threat?

Calm > Aware > Anxious > Frightened > Panicked

  • Calm: No threats are perceived, your livestock are relaxed (grazing, sleeping). Your herd may be comfortably spread out in the pasture
  • Aware: Your livestock become aware of a possible threat. Your herd remains spread out but they are now guarded. They may turn to face the threatening sound, smell, or movement. 
  • Anxious: As the threat level increases it will cause the individual animals to seek the comfort and safety of the herd. Your herd will gather. 
  • Frightened: The escalation in threat now causes the herd to walk away from the threat. 
  • Panic: If the threat escalates to panic it may cause the herd to run or attack the threat

As a livestock handler, you are perceived by your livestock as a potential predator. This allows you to use the above knowledge to gather and move your cattle. As you walk around your pasture you can cause changes in your animals behavior based on your position and proximity to your animals. As you move towards your livestock you will move through the Influence Zone, followed by the Pressure Zone, and into the Flight Zone. Each of these zones will cause a specific response in your animals.

Zones of stimulus for low stress livestock herding

Influence Zone: Your animals become aware of your presence. They may turn to face you. They are guarded but they remain where they are.

Pressure Zone: Your animals become anxious and seek the safety of the herd. Your livestock will gather into a herd body.

Flight Zone: Your animals become fearful. They move position to put distance between you and themselves. 


This herding process has three stages based on the zones described above:

  • Stage One, Approach: Transition from the Influence Zone to the Pressure Zone
  • Stage Two, Gather: Work the Pressure Zone to gather the cattle into a herd body
  • Stage Three, Move: Work the Flight Zone of the individual cattle as well as the cattle body to move the cattle in your desired direction of travel

Note: This method is successful only when the livestock handler is patient. With repeated exposure to this technique your livestock will become easier to move as they learn the relationship between your calm stimulus and their expected response.

Note: This technique requires the handler to walk and position themselves relative to the herd. Any additional stimulus will impede on the success of this method. Barking dogs, sudden handler movements, cattle prods, whistling and yelling, are all examples of handling techniques that should be avoided.

Note: This method will not work well if your livestock are overly domesticated (When you first introduce this method your livestock must see you as a potential threat. If they don’t, they won’t have any motivation to move away from you).

Note: Older livestock who have not experienced this method may be more difficult to train then young stock who are more receptive to learning new behaviors.

The Method

Stage One: Approach

Herding Techniques - Approaching the Zone of Influence

As the handler approaches the herd, the handler should be watching for signs that their cattle are aware of their presence (cattle turn to face you). This will indicate that they have entered the Influence Zone. The handler should now be careful to move toward the line of herd travel without penetrating the Pressure Zone.

Line of herd travel

Once the handler is in line with the line of herd travel they can continue to move forward while watching for the cattle to begin to move. This initial movement indicates the handler has entered the Pressure Zone.

Entering into the Pressure Zone

Stage Two: Gather the herd

Now that the handler has established the leading edge of the Pressure Zone, the handler should now use steady continuous movement from one side of the herd to the other, in a more-or-less straight line.

Gathering the herdThe handler must patiently continue this process until the anxious cattle gather to form a loose herd.

Gathering the herd - Part 2Gathering the herd - Part 3Do not walk forward into the Flight Zone until the herd has gathered.

Stage Three: Move the herd

Once you have gathered the herd you can continue the side-to-side movements as you simultaneously move into the collective herds flight zone. Your walking pattern can now transition to a swooping arc where you enter the Flight Zone on one side of your herd and walk in the opposite direction to the direction you wish your animals to travel. Once movement begins you need to move outside of the flight zone (relieve pressure). You can continue outside of the Flight Zone to the other edge of the herd.

Working the flight zone of the cattle herd

Repeat this process to get the other side of the herd moving. As you continue this movement, working from one side to the other, the herd will become narrower in width and extend forward in the direction of travel.

Working the flight zone of the cattle herd in the open pasture

Similar to working the flight zone of an individual animal, you will move into the flight zone of the herd until the herd begins to move. Once the herd begins to move you will reward the livestock by stepping out of the flight zone. If the herd slows down you simply repeat this process of stimulus > response > reward, to continue to move your livestock towards your target location. The reward is the relief of pressure that your cattle feel when you move out of their flight zone.

Be aware that the shape and position of the Flight Zone of the herd is continually shifting. Constant observations will help you determine the new edge of the various zones.

Avoid standing still as you don’t want to remain in the blind spot of any of the animals. As you move to each side of the herd try to have visual contact with the head of the herd.

Do not worry about any individual animals who may cut away from the herd. Cattle do not like to be isolated and they will return to the herd on their own.

If you can consistently handle your livestock in this quiet manner your livestock will learn how to respond efficiently to your stimulus (movement and position), and they will do so with less stress.

Do not push deeper into the flight zone if the animals are already moving. Deeper penetration of the flight zone than required to start movement can intensify the stimulus threat and cause panic. Panic can induce a stampede or an attack on the handler and should be avoided.

 Controlling the direction of the herd

When you begin using this method your cattle will behave as follows:

  • As you move from right to left, the herd will travel to the right
  • As you move from left to right, the herd will travel to the left

Controlling the direction of your cattle herd As your cattle learn what is expected of them (conditioned to this herding method) their line of travel will become straighter.

Conditioned cattle will travel in a straighter lineReferences and resources:

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