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Avoid the Danger of Being Associated with the Feed Bucket

By   /  August 31, 2020  /  No Comments

We’ve probably all experienced that scary moment when the animals we care for become dangerous to us because they’re just excited to be fed. Here’s how to break that cycle and be safe.

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It is an easy routine to get into, especially in the winter when the animals tend to be in the same spot most of the time and you are in a hurry to get to the barn and then back to the house to get warm and eat breakfast.

Photo by Jenn Colby, Howling Wolf Farm

Your typical morning probably goes something like this. You get up, start the coffee, put on your boots and find that you have left one of your gloves out in the mudroom where it has frozen solid overnight. So you borrow your daughter’s my little pony glove and head into the barn. As you enter the barn, the pigs are startled and jump up with a snort. Then the yelling begins. To the uninitiated it sounds as though you are murdering the pigs but in reality you have just filled the feed bucket and are making your way over to the pen to fill up the trough.

The squealing is annoying but it is the jostling and fighting that can be really dangerous to farmers and visitors alike. These are animals and are not familiar with the concepts of patience and taking turns. Eating is life and life says that the bigger and meaner you are the quicker and more that you are able to eat (with pigs anyway).

When it gets dangerous is when the farmer enters the pen during feeding time. These animals are going to attempt to use the same physical behaviors that they use with their peers to get you to give them feed.   It is not uncommon for some farmers to be screamed at, pushed, shoved, or bitten in order for their animals to get to the feed (but I am here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way!).

So how do we prevent and or cure this dangerous behavior in livestock (and pets and relatives on the holidays)?   We simply have to break the association between the farmer and the food bucket. This, like all behavioral change programs, is going to take time. In order to break that associate you have to do a few different things.

Photo by Jenn Colby, Howling Wolf Farm

Break the association.

This requires the farmer to spend more time with the animals outside of feeding time. That  means you are  going to have to spend time in there, doing other chores, reading a book, talking to them, or whatever else you have  to do to be near  the animals and not feeding them.

Teach them that food comes from some other way.

Many pig farmers accomplish this by utilizing a self-feeder that is refilled every week or so.  In this instance the farmer is not directly associate with the food being delivered and the pigs are more likely to leave them alone. But what about the scraps that are brought to the pigs each morning?

Take the power away from the original stimulus

In other words, remove the association between the feed bucket and food. Walk around with the bucket at different times, and if they are calm, allow them to examine the bucket over and over again so that the association is broken and they get tired of coming to check up if you or the bucket have food for them. This may require you to enter and exit the pen multiple times each day to get the point across.

Do not give them food when they are acting “bad.”

If the animal jumps up on you and knocks the food onto the floor, the animal learns that jumping up on you equals food so this behavior will become more likely. If you have the food in the bucket and the animals are acting up, get out of the pen. Completely walk away and come back in two minutes.  Continue this until the animals get the idea that they will not get any food unless they are following your rules. This goes both ways and is technically referred to a differential reinforcement. You give them food when they are calm and you take the treats away if they are acting up. This provides multiple and powerful learning opportunities for the animals.

Like everything, there is one exception to this rule: bucket training for emergencies. 

All animals should be trained to come to specific visual stimuli and a common audio one. For instance, I would have a special bucket that only comes out once a week and that always has food. When you give them this bucket walk around with it so they get used to following you with it. Pour some out and move on until you get them following you. If they get aggressive or pushy take the food away and stay safe. If they continue to follow and not be aggressive keep dolling it out until it is all gone. This bucket should not be a normal bucket but modified with spray paint to distinguish it.

As far as the common audio stimuli to use I would recommend that you have a special bell or bullhorn to call the animals. This will come in handy when you go on vacation and the pigs get out (this is not  if but when). You can tell your sitter to grab the special bucket and ring the bell and the pigs will come right to you and hopefully be safe and sound in their pen. Why use a bell instead of a special call like the cowboys do? Because it’s really tough to teach another individual to mimic your weird, wild, and personal pig call.

This emergency bucket is the exact opposite of what we are doing during our typical feeding sessions. This bucket is to be hidden and only used during those times of emergency or escape. If you have multiple species on your farm, use a different patterned or type of bucket for each species. A few years ago the cattle at my place learned what the chicken’s grain bucket looked like and had no problem walking over their fencing sticking their head in the coop and licking out all of the food from the chicken feeder.

A note on punishment.

I see many folks who yell, slap, and kick animals that are acting aggressively towards them. I can tell you that you are absolutely wrong in taking that path. For starters you are no match for an adult animal. Even a pig outweighs most of us and I guarantee that you are no match for them in a fair fight so don’t even try. Secondly, punishment, especially physical punishment, does not last as long and/or is not as effective as reinforcement. So do your best to always utilize reinforcers to elicit the preferred behaviors. You can think of it as being proactive as opposed to reactive.

Prevention is the best medicine.

So, the best way to ensure that you don’t develop aggressive food issues on your farm is to avoid pairing you with the food to begin with. That means differentiating your visits so animals do not learn that every time you come around there is going to be food. If you do find yourself in some trouble, then use differential reinforcement to teach the animals that they will not get their treats if they are acting aggressively but that they will if they are calm cool and collected. Please remember, we cannot verbally communicate with animals and it is the animal’s instinct to utilize physical behavior to get what they want. It is the farmer’s job to extinguish aggressive behaviors and promote adaptive/ appropriate behaviors on the property.

And, even if it seems fun, it’s generally a bad idea to feed livestock by hand. It could lead to unfortunate outcomes down the road. Photo by Marty Caivano/July 21, 2008

That is a lot to digest so let’s break down the relevant points.

1. Animals can be dangerous when they begin to associate humans with food.

2. The best way to avoid this is to spend other times with your animals so that you are not constantly pairing food with a visit.

3. If you have developed this problem, do not use aggression to keep the animals at bay. Utilize a systematic approach where you reward the behavior that you want to see (no pushing, no screaming, and no aggressive behaviors) by giving them their food immediately upon exhibit the behavior AND immediately remove all food and attention when they are not “acting up.”

Got questions about this? Do you have an unruly animal that could use a little differential reinforcement? Leave a note in the comments and we can develop a plan together.

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About the author

Jason is social worker turned farmer and owner of Diamond Hills Farm, a pasture based cow/ calf operation in Hudson, New York. When he is not grazing, watering, or calving he is the Livestock Educator for the Ulster County Cooperative Extension Office. He gets up early, tries to stay up late, and enjoys looking at his collection of unread book. He is currently hard at work trying to slow the rotation of earth in order to increase the length of the days and is the most happy at that time of year when you can smell the soil but not the cold.

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