Reprinted with permission from Farming Magazine.
“You’ve just got to talk to them,” my uncle would always say about working with livestock. He could tame wild calves by talking to them soothingly as they calmed down and started to like him.
Experienced stockmen like my late uncle are a testament to what happens when years are dedicated to not just feeding and raising livestock, but keeping them: learning the fine points of animal behavior, health, and husbandry.
As students of the art of stockmanship, we are always ready to learn something new, no matter how long we’ve been working with livestock.
My late father always said, “You have to think like a cow.” What does the handling experience look like through the cow’s eyes? Do they see enough of what you’re driving them toward to recognize a clear path forward? Are you driving them towards a bright, open pen, or does it look like a dead end? By anticipating what the animal will see and think, we can save a lot of time by making their path obvious.
Thinking like a cow also means being aware of changes to the surroundings that animals are quick to perceive. A shovel leaning against the wall that was not there yesterday or a piece of equipment now parked in view of the cattle both have the potential to startle cows, so it helps to limit these changes or at least give them a little time to inspect the new surroundings before moving them forward.
When we wear different hats or clothes, it can spook the animals. Talking reassuringly shows them that we’re the same people; we just happened to need a raincoat or a straw hat today.
My father recalled an older cattleman saying, “Give the hired man a pitchfork instead of getting automatic feeders, because he’ll pitch some silage and then stop to rest a bit and watch the cows.” I’ve learned the importance of this and try not to just do the chores, but do the chores while paying attention to the animals, consciously looking them over more than just enough to throw them feed or put them in the next pasture. That extra bit of attention can mean you catch a health issue before it becomes a bigger problem, you get the cow bred a cycle sooner, and you can make sure the cow calves without trouble. The time spent will help the animals trust you as you build a relationship with them, making it easier for everyone when they need to be handled.
Speaking of handling, I recall a piece of seasoned farmer wisdom which says that however you act, that’s how your cows will act. If you are uptight and yell a lot when driving animals, your cows will be jumpy and hard to handle, but if you are calm and patient, your cows will act the same way. Obviously, there’s going to be a few exceptions, but as a rule I’ve seen this ring true.
This is hard to remember when it’s a hot day and I wish I were done with chores and the group of calves decides not to nicely go into the pen. But that is when it matters most to take your time. It’s so easy to get frustrated and try to hurry, but I’ve found, ironically, it’s quicker to take it easy. “Slow is fast,” as my older brother says. If the animals have gotten worked up and I have tried several times to get them in, I’ll sometimes wait a few moments to let them and myself cool down.
The ultimate goal and challenge of working with cattle is convincing them that they want to do what we need them to do. Cattle do not like to be pushed when they are uncomfortable with a new situation, so it works well to let them dictate the speed to some extent. If they are hesitant and raise or lower their heads to inspect, wait until they have their heads at the normal height before pushing them forward. As animal behavior expert Dr. Temple Grandin says, that is “neutral,” showing they will willingly move.
It can be challenging to drive a single cow somewhere by herself, especially if she is particularly skittish. She feels singled out and acts more nervous because of that. I have had success driving a calm cow together with the one I actually need.
Well-designed equipment and pen setups set the stage for success in handling, but it does not have to be fancy. I just have a stanchion to run single animals into from the lot and a pen to drive and hold larger numbers of animals in, but these work well. I also like to have each cow trained to the halter at least somewhat, so I can put a halter on her and lead her into the stanchion if she does not want to put her head in on her own.
We all have different operations with different needs. For some, loose handling is sufficient. For others, each animal needs to be tame enough to halter and tie individually. It is important to find what works in your particular situation and become comfortable with it.
Each of these points of stockmanship work together to develop a relationship of trust between our animals and us that make life on the farm that much more pleasant. As these skills are shared with us from experienced stockmen, we can pass them onto others and continue the fulfilling tradition of carefully tending livestock.