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Are your cows as natural as can be?

Harley Wagenseller for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 September 2016
#387 dairy cow

Have you ever had the opportunity to tour differing dairy farms through your co-op? It’s really interesting to observe how farms do certain routine procedures on regular tasks in unique ways. It may be that you notice how certain workers seem to have a gentle hand when working directly with the cows.

You also probably commented to others with you on your tour that a certain worker would never work on your dairy because he seems harsh or even herky-jerky in his movements. I once observed a cow pusher who literally ran the cows from the freestall barn to the holding pen, whistling loudly the whole time. I blame this behavior on poor training from management.



They should have taken the time to explain that we are not on a cattle drive in the Old West, trying to get cows to market before sunset.

I acknowledge that on larger dairies, which milk around the clock, schedules have to be met, as in so many cows per hour. There will have to be some hurry-up moments – but never running cows. I have always tried to let the cows be as natural as can be. When I am working around cows, I try to avoid any sudden movements.

When the cows are being moved from the feeding area to the holding pen for milking, I will walk through the midst of them carefully, slowly, observing many things. Do they look “bagged up”? How does their manure look? Any estrus activity? Is any cow down? Does any cow have poor body posture that seems to indicate, “I’m in pain”? Are there any injuries?

Of course, there are my “Friendlys,” as I call them. They just want to have behind their ears scratched – and especially to be talked to. Crazy, you say? I always talk to the cows as if they understand every word I say. They will not understand what I say, but they do know attitude and tone of voice. Not only acknowledging them, but I swear some of them appreciate it and long for it.

Out of my 15 Friendlys in a herd of 230, my original “Friendly,” No. 387, will stand deliberately in line and block dozens of cows trying to be milked. It’s as if she is forcing me to talk to her. So I will scratch her back and rub her neck as I ask her what’s the latest gossip in the milk herd. What are the “girls” talking about? How’s the latest patch of ryegrass grazing tasting today?


Once we have exchanged pleasantries, she is satisfied and goes to work. Furthermore, at least 75 percent of the cows will enter the parlor on their own; they obviously feel comfortable doing this. Also when they are finished, I open the exit gate and they leave of their own free will.

I have found that it’s so much more enjoyable when you work with cows day after day, telling them what you expect from them. We have an older parlor, a double-six, quite open, where I actually have one cow – No. 418, “Spanky” – who will walk down three steps and then stand in the pit and watch as I attach all the machines. She will stand by machine No. 6 and stand in the same spot for 30 minutes without moving as I swing machines from side to side.

On her own, when she is ready, she walks back up three stairs and will just stand in line to be milked. By this time, she is really dripping milk. She’s watched others be stimulated from the prep routine, and she can’t take it anymore. Another observation is that many of the Friendlys just stick their heads in the parlor and watch me go back and forth, wanting to ask me, “What are you doing?” or “How’s it going?”

Another one of my favorite things to do is to put out hay in the afternoons in the hay rings. It is not unusual for 20 or 30 milk cows to crowd around and see what tasty treats I have brought for them. Several will be Friendlys who will nudge me as I cut off hay strings. Again they want to have under their chin scratched or to be touched and acknowledged.

On one particular day, the boss lady came with her grandson on the golf cart to look at the cows. I called her to come right out and look up close as I put the hay out into the feeders. “Come and see all those calves you raised two years ago – their names and numbers – see how well they’re doing,” I told her. I asked her to see how all that hand attention they received two years ago paid off.

We talked about how friendly they continue to be, remembering some of their antics as calves, recalling the trials and tribulations that made us wonder if they would amount to anything some day in the future. We recalled how one cow – No. 610, “Hope” – we gave a fecal transplant from another healthy calf because we had tried everything to stop her scouring.


We tried eggs, probiotics, antibiotics, etc., and nothing had worked up until then. She took off after that and turned out to be a nice 1,200-pound crossbred cow, giving 58 pounds per day. That and so many other stories came to mind about giving those calves that extra “love” only a mother can give.

A further procedure we started three years ago was to put more info on their eartags. Some of the usual components – date of birth, the dam’s sequential number for the calves and names for each one. We have used every concept for names, such as local resident names, names from baby books, auto model names, Bible character names, famous people names, special-event names and so on.

Some of these names are Millie, Ruth Ann, Malibu, Altima, Moses, Apocalypse, Batman, Robin, 9/11, etc. You get the picture. With 230 milk cows, the possibilities are endless.

On occasion, it seems like these calves would almost take on their given names. More than once, I have observed that there is a remarkable similarity between mother and daughter, in so many ways. Are these the things that you have noticed that make your cows as natural as can be? If not, why not start by just going out and standing in the middle of your herd? You might be surprised by what you will learn.  end mark

PHOTOS: The many antics of Friendly No. 387, one of dairy manager Harley Wagenseller’s favorite cows. Photos provided by Harley Wagenseller.

Harley Wagenseller