by Sally Colby

There are some significant differences in the ways dairy and beef animals are handled; one is how they’re handled for the first few months of their lives. Depending on the time of year, beef calves are born on pasture or in a dedicated calving area. Other than receiving an ear tag and a brief health check at birth, most beef calves aren’t handled regularly until they’re weaned.

In contrast, dairy calves are handled as individuals from the time they’re born and quickly learn that humans bring food. On many dairy farms, dairy heifers’ first experience living in and being handled as a group occurs after weaning. As heifers grow, approach breeding age and eventually join the herd, they may be difficult to work with because they’re still accustomed to moving toward the handler.

Dr. Adam Kauf said cows have thinking and communication skills, but unless humans pay attention, it’s a one-way street. Kauf, who is a member of the Livestock Trust Institute and a certified FARM Program Evaluator, recently worked with dairy farmers in an on-farm animal handling training session.

The FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program for dairy farms requires appropriate care for animals of all ages, clean housing, recordkeeping on individual animals, biosecurity and hands-on training in animal care and handling for employees. Dairy cattle are handled frequently throughout their lives, so good animal handling practices that begin with calves will benefit the animal (and those handling her) for her entire life.

As Kauf and a group of dairy farmers observed a group of recently weaned heifer calves, he noted that he could see what the animals were doing in response to his actions and the actions of others in the group. “We can improve their quality of life and our quality of life working with them by what we observe and how we handle that,” he said.

Kauf pointed out the fact that a cow can be looking in front of her and behind her at the same time. “Our eyes are in front, they focus together to look at something,” he said, explaining how a cow can look in front of her while paying attention to something behind her. “It’s something we can’t do, but they can. Her right ear is back, so while she’s looking ahead, she’s also looking back. We can take advantage of that to move her.”

Rather than moving toward a group of cattle and yelling to make them move, Kauf said a far more effective way to move a group is to simply walk up slowly behind them. Moving slowly and calmly from side to side in a zig-zag pattern will encourage cattle to move forward.

Consistency is key

Body motion is usually sufficient for moving animals, but handlers can be prepared to use their hands to quietly encourage animals to face away. Photo by Sally Colby

Pressure and release also plays a role in moving dairy cattle, but Kauf encouraged farmers to think of pressure as a dimmer switch that can be turned up and down rather than “all or nothing” action. “Once you’ve released, you’ve lost all control,” he said. “Stay on the lowest end necessary to do what you need to do.”

Kauf noted a safety issue that can arise when working with cattle, especially if the cattle aren’t accustomed to being handled quietly. If the person moving animals has their hands in pockets, not only can tripping become a more serious hazard, it takes longer for the handler to remove his hands from his pockets if he needs his hands to calmly discourage forward movement.

Like humans, animals learn from every interaction, whether it’s positive or negative. “We want them to learn to be comfortable facing away from us because that’s what they have to do the rest of their lives,” said Kauf. “Milking, breeding, whatever we do – we want them to stand away and stand quietly.”

Kauf said every handler has an impact. “Anyone who steps into the barn, for good or for bad, is a trainer,” he said. “If it’s a bad experience, you’re training animals to do something wrong. Consistency is key – everyone on the farm has to be handling animals the same way.”

Training heifers to move away pays off for every other aspect of the animals’ lives. Kauf said during the first 60 days of a calf’s life, humans are teaching calves to come toward them, but for the rest of the heifer’s life, they need to move away from humans and be comfortable doing it.

The goal in teaching animals how to move away is using a zig-zag pattern, moving slowly in and out of the animals’ blind spots. Kauf explained that in moving cattle, successful handlers use negative reinforcement. “We step into them and get them to do what we want them to do,” he said, “then as soon as they do, we back off and walk away. Removing the pressure is the negative reinforcement. They learn that if a person steps in toward them and [the animals] move away, the person will step away and release the pressure.”

Regarding weaned heifers Kauf said they can also learn that it’s okay to be separated from the group and held calmly in a corner, away from herd mates. He encourages dairy farmers to spend 15 minutes working with young animals in a group – moving them to one end of the pen, holding them there, then moving appropriately among the animals to move them to the other end. “Move them in group pens once or twice,” he said, adding that holding the group is important. “And once they turn away, you back off to reduce pressure.” Young heifers will retain such a lesson, and months later, when it’s time for breeding, a brief refresher of just a few minutes of moving a group quietly will prove they remembered.

“Heifers learn from everything you do with them – keep that in mind,” said Kauf. “Over time, you’ll find moving animals around the farm is going to be a lot easier.”