Middle Tennessee Research Center Uses Horses to Manage Cattle

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Horses Managing Cattle

Kevin Thompson of the University of Tennessee’s Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Spring Hill reintroduced the use of horses to manage cattle. Photo credit: Nathan Lambrecht

Modern-day research in Middle Tennessee relies on horses as the natural horsepower to handle beef cattle and facilitate research while maintaining an age-old industry tradition.

Observing, gathering and sorting pastured cattle by means of horses comes naturally to cattle farmer and horseman Kevin Thompson, the son of a lifelong Tennessee livestock farmer. Thompson serves as director of the University of Tennessee’s Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center (MTREC), which operates facilities in Spring Hill and Lewisburg. He and his staff carry out studies on production concepts for University of Tennessee animal scientists, essentially working through any challenges and providing proven solutions for Tennessee’s cattle farmers.

Uniquely, the research staff manages its cattle herd by horseback.

“When I came back in 2010 to lead the research center, I made a reintroduction of the horse simply because it provides a better way of doing things in a low-stress environment, and it also brings safety back into the equation,” Thompson says. “As technology has advanced and demographics change, people get away from the old ways, and they are often sadly forgotten. There is a benefit to practicing the old ways when they remain productive. A perfect example is utilizing the horse as a management tool.”

Horses Managing Cattle

Photo credit: Nathan Lambrecht

No Horsing Around

The staff at MTREC keeps three to five working horses, used daily for management of the center’s beef cattle research program, heifer development center, and bull evaluation and development program. Research staff rides on horseback to observe, gather and sort the cattle, a method that it finds reduces anxiety among the herd.

See more: Young Tennessee “Agvocates” Share Farm Life With the World

“What has been so beneficial about the utilization of the horse is that many negative handling events can occur during the gathering process between pasture and handling facility,” Thompson says. “If we stress the cattle through utilization of excess pressure presented in manners such as noise and aggressive actions, this can cause negative responses to their productivity. Stress can reduce economically important production traits such as reproduction, health and nutritional efficiency. Our ultimate goal is to reduce any altering effect or factor that could negatively influence an accurate research outcome.”

Kevin Thompson, left, moves cattle down road with Nolan Rinks at the Middle Tennessee Research and Eduction Center in Spring Hill.

Photo credit: Nathan Lambrecht

Over time, the onset of mechanization largely has replaced the horse as a management tool. Pickup trucks and utility side-by-side vehicles provide modern-day options for cattle producers, and Thompson believes they have their place. Yet, he also notices that their noise and movement mask natural herd activity and often lead to heightened handler stress due to noise, speed and maneuverability restrictions.

“Lack of understanding is our greatest obstacle – how do I use the horse, buy it, train it, feed it. We try to eliminate the fear of the unknown.”

– Kevin Thompson, cattle farmer and horseman

Horses naturally are quiet, more proficient at maintaining cattle at a desired pace, safely handle rugged terrain and appear inherently dominant to cattle – triggering respect, not fear. As a result, Thompson observes that horses minimally disrupt the herd’s natural behavior, a benefit that can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of sick cattle and more accurate observation of reproductive activities essential to breeding stock management and research.

“The gait of a horse, view from the saddle and lack of herd disturbance provides a truer perspective of the herd’s needs,” Thompson says. “It is truly beneficial to use a more natural tool, which is what I like to call the horse.”

Photo credit: Nathan Lambrecht

Equine Education

Thompson sees the need for formal research on horse use as a beef herd management tool and its impacts on productivity, feed efficiency, carcass quality, management costs and handler stress levels.

Meanwhile, he works on one of the biggest hurdles to horse adoption: lack of knowledge. Thompson estimates that fewer than 25% of Tennessee cattlemen use horses in herd management and most are two generations removed from horse use on the farm. Thompson works with Dr. Jennie Ivey, Extension equine specialist for the University of Tennessee, to offer training sessions that build knowledge and teach skills related to cattle handling and horsemanship.

“There is a passion to get back to horses, but there also is an inherent fear of a larger animal and an understanding that the animal has to be taken care of in a certain way,” Thompson says. “Lack of understanding is our greatest obstacle – how do I use the horse, buy it, train it, feed it. We try to eliminate the fear of the unknown.”

Learn More

To learn more about the research and efforts of the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center, visit middletn.tennessee.edu.

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