The Calves Come Home

How to calm down, observe nature, and supercharge your results!

When I started grazing cattle nine years ago I had no clue about what I was doing, how things would turn out, and how much nature takes care of things on her own.  As the years went by I found that relaxing, observing and letting things happen was a better strategy than forcing change and making things that I wanted to happen come to pass. The latter is exhausting and not as fulfilling, but it took time, experience and careful thought to come to this realization. For me, nature was my best teacher, showing me how powerful animal instinct is and how well different species already work together.

Cattle still in the paddock. All photos by Eric Noel.

The Power of Instinct
I used to always make sure all the calves for my cow-calf operation were with their mothers every time I went to move the herd. I’d make sure that with every herd move all the calves were found and trained on my time frame. This worked all right until the end of my first season of grazing my own herd.

I moved the herd and noticed two calves not present. I proceeded to find them and attempted to get them with the herd. This didn’t work so well this time. In my attempt to get behind them and push them in the direction of the herd, these two calves kept going in the opposite direction. I ended up pushing them into the neighbor’s woods, up over two hills and through three barbed wire fences about a mile away. I gave up. They kept moving away from me. I couldn’t make a big enough circle to get behind them. I actually lost them in the woods. I thought I would never see those calves again. It was evening. I went home and ate. I was angry at the calves and myself, and I was stressed out about losing the potential income. I tried to put it out of my mind, and I went to bed.

The next morning I went out to do my first move of the day, never expecting to see those two calves, but there they were – standing next to their mothers with full bellies looking at me like nothing ever happened. At first this got me cranked up again because I was thinking “these calves are playing me, not doing what I want them to do when I want them to do it”. Then after some thought (I don’t know why it didn’t come sooner) it dawned on me: Let them move when they want to at the pace they want. They already know what to do. Their instinct is so strong that they overcame all the obstacles. I pushed them through in the dark no less. I had forced my own time-wasting, stressful situation. I let my ego, my belief that things were supposed to be just so get in the way. Life, and farming in particular, do NOT require struggle to be successful or to feel like you are doing your part. What I have found is that nature already has all the answers. The path of least resistance (which is also human nature) actually allows us to accomplish more in less time for an increased quality of life, higher net profits and more time off.

Cow Controlled Weaning
Another natural concept you can use is to let the cow do the weaning. This totally eliminates stress for the calf, the cow and you. I know what you’re thinking, “A cow doesn’t know how to do that”. Well, let me tell you from experience that they do. In preparation for the new calf she will kick the yearling until it gets the hint and stops trying.  Yes, you will have the occasional heifer or even a cow that doesn’t get it right. What do you do? Cull the animal. It’s all about getting the herd to take care of itself as much as possible.

Birds and Grazing Cattle
Another example of nature working within a farming system is grassland birds thriving in a planned grazing model. I have seen cattle graze around Bobolink nests perched up in the forage canopy of a paddock. Think about this: 150 head of 1000 pound cattle in a high density scenario grazing around a nest in

Bobolink nest after 150 head grazed the paddock.

the forage, the size of a coffee cup with eggs in it and leaving it unharmed! How does this happen? The only answer I can come up with is “It’s nature. It’s what is supposed to happen”.

Last year I also started seeing birds on the back of my cattle. A couple of years before I built and installed about 30 tree swallow bird houses because they eat flying insects. I wanted to reduce the fly population in a natural way. Now when I go down my cattle lane, I get dive bombed and zoomed by all these birds. It’s very cool to see. Last year was the first year I had NO pink eye cases with the most cattle I’ve ever grazed (180 head).

Relax and Let Nature Do Her Job
Plants and animals did just fine before we got here and will continue when we are gone. We have the advantage of our intellect, our thinking mind. We can choose to let go of our ego, our competitive self. This allows us to align ourselves with nature, give her the support she can use which allows both to prosper. Feed the cycle and the cycle will provide abundant returns in all forms. It all starts with our thinking. Do less, make more and laugh all the way to the bank, and at the same time making a deposit in nature’s bank account.Following what nature already knows how to do and using our management skills to align with her is where the magic happens. You will know when you get there because you are in the zone and your farm and cattle are all at high performance and in step with nature.  You will have more time for the things in life that are important to you, your family and your farm. Stress levels are low and farming becomes profitable and fun again.

Nursing calf. Momma knows what to do.


Eric Noel

Eric Noel is an organic farmer, grazing and farm planning consultant, and coach. He lives and farms in the Champlain Islands of Vermont with his wife and two children. He can be reached at (802)752-8731 or

1 Comment

  1. […] and remembered words from a recent article by Eric Noel in the Small Farm Quarterly, titled “The Calves Come Home: How to Calm Down, Observe Nature, and Supercharge Your Results“. Eric wrote in reference to an early bad experience he had with grazing: “I had forced […]

Leave a Comment