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0309 PD: Do you use low-stress herd management practices?

Sarah Jackson Published on 06 February 2009

“Come on! Go in the parlor!” your herdsman yells at Cow #216, who won’t go into the milking parlor again. Most who have worked with cows have experienced this frustration at some point in time. Sometimes it seems that some cows are bound and determined not to cooperate.

What if there was a different way to work with cows? A way of handling a cow that would compel her to do as you ask? A way to understood how her mind works and anticipate her reactions? Animal behavior experts say it can definitely be done.

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“There’s a movement afoot, a huge paradigm shift across many disciplines,” says Jack Noel, a former rancher and owner of AG Ventures, LLC in New Mexico. “These ideas are slowly beginning to permeate through traditional livestock practices. In the dairy industry, we’re starting to hit the wall. The old ways just don’t work anymore.”

First, consider the beginnings of modern cattle management and handling methods. Originally, domesticated cows were managed by a village or by tribal children – the extreme in low-stress management. Noel says domesticated cows chose us to provide them with feed and protection. Cattle began to be wild and unmanageable when the Spanish imported them to North America in the late 1700s as they began to colonize the New World. The vaqueros of the Old West pioneered low-stress management and understood cows’ herd instinct.

“A lot of people think cows are unintelligent and are there to provide hamburgers and milk,” Noel says. “If you shift the way you look at cows, you become more open to the fact that they’re really quite intelligent on other levels. It’s a difficult place to get to. People see the world differently, often as we’re taught. We need to look at livestock management and change to meet our low-stress management goals.”

Noel says that by breeding cows to produce extremely large amounts of milk, other characteristics and instincts were lost. So the next step to better management, Noel says, is understanding how the cow’s mind works. He says that cows’ minds operate in the same way as a person with autism.

“Cows think in pictures,” Noel explains. “People think in words and concepts. If you start thinking like an animal, you can begin to understand what their problems are.”

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The herd instinct is still quite strong in cattle. Noel says that cows pair up, always eating with their pals. The herd has its own hierarchy, and the queen goes into the parlor first, her entourage following. Environment and stress affect how cows socialize and whether they stand in groups or by themselves. When cows are brought into a pen, they bunch up, naturally following their herding instinct, but cow pushers sometimes respond with loud noise, attempting to spread them out. Noel believes this causes problems.

“If you’re focusing on getting that cow through the gate, she is not going to go,” Noel says. He adds that through a bit of observation and practice, most producers can quickly remedy stressful environments. Noel suggests three rules for low-stress herd management:

1. Be quiet
2. Move in a walk
3. Keep your hands in your pockets or behind your back.

Cows are flight animals. For example, consider how you approach a cow. When you walk up to a cow, she watches you. At the edge of her flight zone, if you step toward her, she moves. If you back up, she stops. Noel says that just by understanding how cows move in a pen, you can actually move a cow silently with your hands in your pockets, only by using her flight zone. When a cow is walking toward you, utilize her flight zone to have her move past you, walking by your side, and go where you want. However, you must not walk directly toward her face.

“There’s all these little kinds of tricks you can use,” Noel says. Another low-stress management expert and long-time rancher, Bud Williams, agrees that the principles work.

“The cow is also doing what it wants to do. That’s really the basis of this whole thing,” Williams says. Williams offers stockmanship and low-stress management workshops around the world. He explains that people have to read a cow to determine what she’s saying.

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“You learn how to respond so that you’re both speaking the same language,” he says. “Every movement you make tells the cow something. She’s going to respond to how you move and position yourself by doing what she thinks she’s supposed to do. She won’t be moving out of fear.” Williams says you should move close enough to the cow to put enough pressure on her that she wants to move away from you. By moving away from you in the direction you want her to go, she’s also relieving that pressure.

“The cow is happy, you’re happy and everything is good,” he says.

Dairies should also try to minimize stress on cows, Noel emphasizes.

“Ideally, cow comfort, bedding and a solid routine all help to minimize stress,” Noel says. “If a cow comes out of the parlor and feed is always there, that helps maximize cow comfort. Even if the truck’s broke, feed is always there. Later, a tractor pushes up feed; she gets used to these things. If you begin to install these constant practices on the dairy, it takes pressure off the cow.”

Cows love consistency, Noel says. So when a cow’s herdmate is moved, it causes stress.

“If you’re willy-nilly moving cows, you’re creating stress,” he says. Cows’ stress level is also affected by the attitude of those who work with them. Noel says that studies show a herdsman’s good mood can cause production to rise, and vice versa. The herdsman does not even have to go near the milking parlor for this to occur. Another study showed a positive response in production to a milking team that was mellow, laughing and had no loud music playing. The team recognized and greeted them and was sensitive to the cows’ behavior in the milking parlor.

“I believe that cows can read emotional signals from people,” Noel says. “Cows are telepathic to a degree. It goes to show how important it is to stay really consistent around the cows. They also remember who treated them well and who didn’t.”

Another way of reducing cows’ stress is to respect their natural preferences, Noel says, including milking them on their preferred side of the parlor. Studies have shown a correlation between the swirls of hair on a cow’s forehead and which side they like to be milked on. Cows are also right- or left-footed, similar to people being right- or left-handed.

Cows may also prefer to have a male or female milking them. If they are used to a female, then they are also used to how a female treats them. A bad experience with one gender may cause the cow to not respond well to someone of that same gender. Too much light contrast in different areas can also cause anxiety and stress, Noel says.

Noel suggests building curved squeeze chutes for sorting cows, so they don’t look straight at the end. This eliminates apprehension as cows walk toward the chute.

“If you really look at the things that cause stress and try to alleviate them, milk production will go up,” Noel says. “Once you become cognizant of how cows react to their environment, they’re much easier to manage. It’s easy to begin changing things and get really good results.”

Williams adds that cows’ frame of mind also affects their behavior. A normal frame of mind in a cow is like a normal frame of mind in a person. An abnormal frame of mind is when a cow is unhappy, confused or upset. Consequently, when cows are more relaxed and less stressed, Noel says their immune systems will function better.

“If a cow is in a normal frame of mind and is really comfortable with what you’re doing, she will be healthier, happier and perform better,” Williams says. “The minute they’re into this normal frame of mind, health problems go down and production goes up. We create a lot of health problems in cows, so management can eliminate a large percentage of health problems.”

Each cow is an individual, Williams says, and each cow has a different signal for telling people that she’s upset.

“You can’t look for a specific thing,” he says. “You might work 100 cows, and every one might tell you in a different way what you need to know.” Noel believes that maintaining consistency can help.

“The cow thinks, ‘Bedding is constant. It’s there, and I expect it,’ which makes her a happy cow,” Noel says. “She thinks, ‘Rations are consistent, the people that come are friendly, nice and know me, they don’t yell at me or hit me. Life is good.’ Happy cows do better.”

Herd management is about trust, Noel says. If cows trust you, they will do what you want. If not, problems may occur. There’s a symbiotic relationship between people and cows.

Noel maintains the key to improving management is to modify your value system and treat animals how they want to be treated. Perhaps the Golden Rule is just as relevant for human-cattle interactions as it is for relationships between humans. Plus, it might end up putting money in your pocket. PD

Sarah Jackson is a freelance writer in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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