Herding In The Digital Age



When my husband died, I inherited the 600-acre Colorado ranch he built and managed for 25 years. In the all the time I'd lived there with him, I stayed out of the ranch operations, only getting involved when he asked me to. I did my share of house cleaning, but my exterior responsibilities extended no further than the garden around the house. All of that changed when he passed away in December of 2007. I was still reeling from his death at our home in Maine when, a few months later, a barn roof at the ranch collapsed under the weight of ice and snow.


Suddenly there were decisions to be made, a contractor to hire, payments to authorize, employees with conflicting stories about how the disaster happened, etc. I flew to Colorado and then, once repairs were underway, returned to Maine. Eight months later, a leak in the Colorado master bath damaged three levels, at which point I lost our homeowner's insurance. Replacing it was painfully expensive.


After the next disaster, I found a house-sitter for Maine and moved back to the ranch full-time. Fast forward, a couple of employees out, a couple in, and we were heading into our third disaster-free winter. After having dealt with male ranch managers, with disastrous results, the new ranch manager was a woman. Lisa was competent, conscientious, and a joy to work with.

Each year, some time in June, a cattle rancher would bring his herd of 80 cows to graze on the property for the summer and fall. Then he came back up in October to retrieve the herd. This particular year, when he drove away with the cows, four were unaccounted for. Two mothers and their two calves ran and hid in the forest and nothing could persuade them to come back out. The rancher had cattle to move, so he left them behind.

Lisa kept trying to get them to come down to the lower pens near the barn so the rancher could come and get them, to no avail. After a few weeks the first snow fell and she was worried that they would perish on their own without food or shelter in the frigid Rocky Mountains’ winter. Each day she took hay to the back pasture, leaving a trail leading to the first meadow, where they could be contained and eventually herded to the lower pens near the barn.


Unfortunately, once they ate the hay, they disappeared right back into the wild parts of the ranch. Lisa would return the next day with new hay and see hoof prints in the mud and snow, but no cows. During our weekly meeting one morning,, Lisa updated me on the slow progress of luring the cows and asked if I had any ideas. I asked her if she thought the cows would come to the sound of a herd. She said she thought they would.


After our meeting I went online and found some herd audio files and spliced them together in a music-editing program. I created 10 minutes worth of “Moo loops" and burned them onto a CD that would play in my car. Later that day, Lisa and I headed to the back pasture, me in my hybrid Lexus with its great sound system, and she on the ATV. We approached the lower meadow as stealthily as we could, but the cows were nowhere to be seen. It was getting cold and the sun would be setting in a few hours.


We parked in the big tree-lined meadow and I opened the doors to the Lexus, blasting herd sounds from the speakers. Lisa and I got our insulated mugs of coffee from the cup holders and wandered into the field, hoping the cows would hear the moo loops and lumber in from the back of the property. After about fifteen minutes I turned toward the car, intending to increase the volume, when I heard Lisa yell something. I looked back and saw the cows and calves, galloping toward us from the woods! Holy cow! What were the cows on that audio file saying??! We both started laughing, then Lisa started sprinting for the ATV, yelling at me to, "GO, GO!”


I jumped in the car, leaving the doors open, and drove slowly through the meadow gate and up over the hill, heading down the road toward the house and barn, passing all the small piles of hay Lisa had placed along the road. She followed behind, watching the cows and motioning me when to slow down or speed up.


As they neared the final fence Lisa closed it, then it was a matter of getting them into the first pen, where my bellowing car and a big pile of hay waited for them. They were hungry, and it took a while for them to eat each pile on their path to the pen, but with some sweet-talking from Lisa, they finally passed into the pen and Lisa shut the gate.

Success!


We high-fived, very pleased with ourselves. It would have taken two riders on horseback a full day of frustrating crisscrossing and backtracking through the trees and scrub oak to get those cows. We did it in a little over an hour using hay, some gentle coaxing, a luxury sedan, and a digital audio file.



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