Cattle Drives

What are they and what do you do when you see one on the road?


When driving in rural Alberta, you might come across a herd of cows crossing the roadway. While unusual to some, this is known as a cattle drive and has a long history in western culture.

Cattle drives are simply when ranchers, farmers, or cowboys move herds of cows from one area to another. Beginning in 1868, the purpose of cattle drives or cattle trailing was primarily to transport livestock, mainly cattle, to markets or shipping yards.(1) For the agricultural sector, the cattle trailing industry turned a remarkable profit with contractors earning about $20,000 for one cattle drive back in the late 1800s.(2)


At the time, driving cattle needed to be strategic and cowboys considered distance, time, and the weight of the cow. In one day, cattle could be driven up to 40 km, but traveling this distance all at once caused the cattle to lose their mass and made selling them at market a challenge. In order to adjust, the distance was cut down to 24 km a day, allowing periods for resting and grazing. While this ensured the herd’s marketable weight was maintained, it meant the travel time could take up to two months.(3)


Nowadays, livestock are transported by trailer or truck. But cattle drives are still used to move livestock from one pasture to another. This allows the cattle to graze in a new pasture, while the previous one is given an opportunity to regrow. Some ranches have continued on the tradition of cattle drives as a tourist attraction for people wanting a taste of cowboy western culture.


So what should you do if you come across a cattle drive?


Most cattle drive roadways are marked by traffic signs, and there is sufficient warning to drivers. If a roadway is a one-time use for a cattle drive, temporary signage and traffic control personnel will be available to direct traffic.(4)


Even with enough warning, it is still alarming to see herds of cattle crossing the road. Instinctively, drivers often pull over their vehicles, honk their horns, or turn on their hazard lights. While this may seem like the right thing to do, this can cause cows to rub up against your vehicle or may even cause them to panic, especially when drivers honk their horns. Their behaviour can become unpredictable, creating an unsafe environment for the herd and drivers.


When drivers encounter a cattle drive, it is foremost recommended to look for the cattle ranch worker and await their instructions. They can be found on horseback, ATV, or on foot. In cases where the ranch worker cannot be found, or if they are occupied, drivers should proceed slowly and cautiously through the herd.


This way, we can all “moo-ve” along safely!


[1]CBC. (2013). Canadian Cattle Drive. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2392288815.

[2]Skaggs, J.M. The Cattle Trailing Industry:Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890. p. 3-5.

[3]Malone, J.W. An Album of the American Cowboy. New York: Franklin Watts Inc., 1971. p. 38-50.

[4]Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation. (Oct. 2007). Cattle Crossing Sign. Retrieved October 13, 2020 from http://www.transportation.alberta.ca/Content/docType233/Production/17Cattle_Crossing_Sign.pdf.

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