Tuesday, June 17, 2014

To Tether a Cow

My property does not have fencing.

There are a few privacy fences, and about 200' of mangled field fence, but all of these end and do not form an enclosed area. In the very back, there are a few lines of barbed wire that the turkeys, deer, and whatever else have made more decorative than functional. I also have the movable reinforced combo panel garden paddocks, and the movable, solar-charged electro-net, but there are not permanent enclosures.

Instead of fully-fenced permanent pastures, I use these tools for an intensive managed grazing system. But the electro-net and paddocks do not account for the cows. The paddocks house the chickens and pigs, and the electro-net contains the sheep.

The cows? They're tethered.

Tethering cows: taking managed intensive grazing to new frontiers.

For tethering them, I use the following items:

Starting from the cow, and working back:

  • The spring snap connects to the halter and also to the swivel.
  • The quick link connects the swivel to the end of the chain. I ended up using some rubber cement to bind the quick link screw together on the swivel.
  • The other end of the chain has another quick link that allows me to vary the size of the anchor I am tying the cow to.
  • For a T-post, I made about an 8" diameter loop.
  • For trees, I leave enough slack to allow the chain to slide freely around the tree for a 360-degree rotation without tangles.

The "cow side" of the chain. This shot shows a bull snap, which was replaced by the spring
snap. It connetcs to halter to the swivel, and the quick link connects the swivel to the chain.
The bull snaps were only rated to 550 lbs. load, and Brisket bent his and escaped.  :(
The spring snaps I got are rated to 1,150 lbs. They've been flawless.
And yes, I took this picture 2 days before he broke free.
The "anchor end" of the chain, with a single quick link connecting a few links of the chain.
Notice the slack for ease of rotation. This one I unscrew and screw each time I move them.
The metal tube provides a smooth surface so the T-post knots don't tangle the chain.
Each piece is rated for a minimum of 1,100 pounds of force.

This system provides numerous benefits:

  • I can control where and for how long they graze.
  • I can keep them separated so Brisket doesn't try to nurse when he shouldn't be.
  • I can keep the pasture managed properly to prevent overgrazing.
  • I can keep them OUT of patches of weeds or rocks that i don't want them to be in.
  • I get up close and personal with them each day so i can very closely monitor their health and condition.
  • I always know where they are.
  • It is much less expensive to implement than permanent cattle fencing.
  • I can use trees, T-posts, privacy fence posts, carport rails, the front porch, the kids' swing set, etc. as tether anchors, providing lots of flexibility and numerous grazing options for the cows.
  • Moving posts and hauling chains gives me a good workout!

Of course, there are some drawbacks:

  • It takes a lot more work and effort to tether than to turn loose in a pasture.
  • I have to be VERY cognizant of lightning storms (what with a piece of metal stuck a foot in the ground that is attached to more metal that is attached to my animals), and actively work to get them off the chain and into shelter as storms approach.
  • I need to move T-posts at least once a day.
  • Sometimes, they need to moved upwards of 4 times a day, depending on the location and the length and quality of the pasture where I tie them. (Although, I often can tie them in one spot for a whole day if it has enough grass and clover to keep them well-fed. Every day is different).
  • I do not have the luxury of simply opening a gate and letting them go.
  • They can get tangled, despite my preventative measures, and often need to be unwound from sticks and rocks.

Fortunately, i had some experience tethering before I got the cows. Samson the Donkey was tethered using a rope, and from that experience I learned several things that have made this round very successful:

  • Animals will step on rope and wear out sections, leading to breakage.
  • Rope ties in knots, and chain really doesn't.
  • Rope cannot easily be made to swivel like chain can.
  • Chain is heavier, but it is also FAR more durable.
  • Chain is easier to untangle from around trees, sticks, shrubs, saplings, rocks, animal legs, etc.

As they graze, the heaviest parts of the chain (i.e., the big ol' swivel) lie flush with the ground.
The tethering system doesn't interfere at all with the cows' ability to graze.
It merely restricts their graze-able area.

I usually put the cows away in a "barn setting." Occasionally, though, I've had to leave them out in the field for a night. Sometimes we go out and get back very late, for example. They've been totally fine every time. the chain is pliable and large enough to prevent them from getting it wrapped around their legs. They can lie down and get up at will with zero issues.

Ah - but what about water?

Brisket grazing in a shaded glen, with 10+ gallons of water water well within reach.
I use the cow cart to carry the water bucket plus fresh water in the big tank, as well as the T-post tools with me. After pulling up the post and resetting it, then attaching the cow, I fill up the water bucket from the tank. I make to set it where the cows can reach it, but not too close where they can get behind it, wrap the chain, and tip the bucket over. This keep a constant supply of water. The last few weeks have been in the low 90's, temp-wise, and the cows have been drinking about 15 gallons a day. The 17-gallon tank are PERFECT for this.

My T-post tools. Left, the driver. Right, the puller.
These both store in the cow cart for super-easy transport.
All in all, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in tethering this way. Sure, it can be done very poorly and make life miserable for the cow (or the human). But with some planning and foresight, and willingness to do the work every day, tethering can be a great system for grazing and pasture management. the cows get used to it very quickly, and this is simply their new norm.

Brisket tethered in the foreground, and Bridget tethered in the background.
See his chain?
Eventually, i would like to fence the back half, at least into quarters. But for mowing the front lawn, keeping grass trimmed by the kids' play area, and so on, I'll still tether. I haven't mowed the grass all year - I just selectively tether and graze the cattle where I need them. It works great, and if done right, can be a long-term solution - or at the very least, a large part of an overall approach.


  1. Great article! I've been thinking about getting cattle but fencing is just too expensive. I've thought about tethering and haven't been sure if it would work or not, and this article sealed the deal for me! Thanks!

  2. We tether, too! We got our first cow a couple of months ago, and because we still haven't erected any type of fencing, I move her all over the grassy areas on our property. I just acquired another cow and her calf, who are staying in the barn getting used to being here. I'm hoping to hurry up and finally get some portable electric fence up, but I may very well try tethering these other ones, too. We'll see... Our first cow is four and lived from birth in a herd with lots of acreage out in fields, and was not milked either, so it's all been a huge adjustment for her, but she got used to the new routine fairly quickly overall. I do not have a very record in the animal training department, so I guess it just shows how adaptable cows are. I had to use grain, etc at first to lead her around, now I just use the lead.

  3. I have been tethering using a chain system similarly to yours for over a year. I have had no problems but one time she did get loose when the bull snap broke and the neighbors bull bred her not really the bull I wanted . I have 45 acres and all the fences are bad. Working on some electric fence this year. Thank you for this well written article.