Editors Note: Dr. Don Höglund is an expert in safe, efficient, large animal handling techniques. He combines an understanding of cow behavior and how cows learn to show producers how to work with their livestock to move them calmly and with less distress. He’ll be spending a week in Vermont and New York from January 17 – 23 to share his background with dairy producers and others interested in improving their livestock handling skills. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area, click here to sign up for one of the workshops. If you’re not in the area, read on for some excellent tips from Don on good animal handling.
Everything starts with the animal. Truly, everything begins with, rotates around, and ends with the animal too. If you want to work with your herd, you start with looking at what they are doing, and go from there.
There are some key principles to moving cows. They tend to go in the direction they are facing. They also tend to move in an arc, back to the direction from which they came, and they are apt to follow other cows. Try to get the cows in front going in the right direction, and you are all set. Most of all, they tend to visualize what is stimulating them. Cows’ blind spot is directly behind them, but they have great peripheral vision. If you want to move them, don’t stand behind them and shout “Move!” They won’t be able to see you, which will cause them to over-react, and with sensitive ears, cows react to hearing you shout almost as much as they react to being prodded and hit. Avoid all three and most handling outcomes will improve.
When cows walk, they are going about 2 mph. When you or I walk, we’re going about 3-4. If you walk alongside your cows, and you end up going faster than the train of cows, you’ll catch up to the lead cows. They will slow down and stop to see what you’re up to.
Figure out how your cows respond to stimulus, and make sure you don’t over-stimulate them. Negative interactions can lead to more negative interactions, and productive interactions can set the tone for future interactions. Cow behavior is the sum of all interactions.
Cows learn, and understanding how they learn can be a big step toward lower energy handling. There are two main ways that cows learn: classical learning, and trial-and-error. In classical learning, cows experience certain conditions repeatedly and associate them with each other. For example, if you turn the radio on the parlor before milking, they will connect the afternoon radio programming with milking, and after time, hearing the radio go on in the afternoon may set off an oxytocin release.
The other way cows learn is through trial-and-error. Using the concept of stimulus and reward can be a tool for herd handling, if you apply it carefully. The best timing for a response is within a half-second (similar, of course, to a jiffy). Using that reward system, and responding with appropriate stimuli, the herd can learn, and move with less distress for them, and for you.
Keeping the interactions low distress is key. Productive interactions can set the tone for future interactions as well. Unproductive interactions are remembered, and set the tone for conflict in future interactions, as well as posing potential danger to the herd and the workers. Half of dairy farm accidents occur in and around the milking parlor. With training, that number can drop by 50%. The added bonus is calmer cows make more milk.
You can learn more and see on-farm handling demonstrations by registering for one of Dr. Höglund’s January workshops here.