Bad cows are bad influences, smart cows never forget and other insights into handling cattle for women
By Tom Parker
Cows are big and beefy and muscular and most women aren’t, so for the latter to manage the former it helps to not only understand how cows think and socialize, but also how cows remember their past, how cows perceive their place in the cosmos and, perhaps less intuitively but easily learned, how a cow’s vision impacts its behavior.
Such was the message of “Handling Cattle Without Getting Handled,” a recent workshop with guest speaker Lucinda Stuenkel, co-owner of Sunny Day Farms located in southern Washington County. The intensive four-hour workshop, sponsored by Amazing Grazing III, covered every facet of low-stress livestock care, from fertility, calving and weaning to separating, sorting and moving cows, with additional information on rotational grazing, cover crops and pasture management. About 75 people attended.
Stuenkel’s insights derived from firsthand experience and meticulous observation following the death of her husband, Daryl, five years ago. She was always passionate about soil conservation and farm efficiency, but when management of the farm fell upon her shoulders, it didn’t take long to realize that changes were in order.
Her husband’s approach to cattle management had been traditional: herd from behind while leading with a bale or bucket, rope cattle when you needed to catch them, keep every cow regardless of temperament, breed heifers to calve at 20 months, calve in January or February to avoid conflicts with planting in April, May and June, and accept without question a five to ten percent annual loss rate for calves due to dystocia, freezing or scours despite rigorous checking every two hours.
“This was what everybody else did, but it didn’t work for us,” she said. “We had to find another way.”
Her first order was to cull the herd. Cows that were hyper-alert or wild-eyed, cows that had hurt someone regardless of reason, cows with poor mothering skills, cows whose calves had died before weaning even if they were eaten by coyotes, cows with excess flies or parasites, cows in less-than-optimum condition, were all relegated to the sale barn. Stuenkel was ruthless in her selection process. If the cow couldn’t protect her calf, she wasn’t trying hard enough; excess flies or parasites were indicative of a poor digestive system, ruling them incapable of maintaining their health when left to graze year-round on grasses, forbs and cover crops.
Cows with poor attitudes were also sent packing. “Bad cows teach other cows how to be bad,” she said.
Thuggery cannot be condoned, whether from cows or handlers. Following an unfortunate incident when a hired hand tagged a calf shortly after its birth, a protective mother became a hypersensitive, angry and cunning beast. She never forgave the worker, Stuenkel said. The cow eventually attacked him and, several years later, came after Stuenkel, too. Off she went to the sale barn.
The first maxim of cattle handling, Stuenkel said, is that cows do not forget. Ever.
“When a cow is scared or comes against something new or frightening or dangerous, she remembers what she sees,” Stuenkel said. “Our role is to minimize such incidents.”
Because cows are prey animals, they’re prone to taking cues from their surroundings, from people, and from inanimate objects that are either introduced or out of place, like a jacket hanging on a fence post where none had hung before. “They need to know whether it’s friend or foe,” she said.
Discerning between the two is more effective when your eyes are on the side of your head, Stuenkel said. But while cows have excellent peripheral vision, they lack depth perception. Cows cannot see straight ahead, as humans do, which is why cattle often hesitate before entering stock trailers or chutes.
Another source of difficulty for cows is navigating uneven terrain or walking over obstacles. “Cows like to drag their feet, and that has implications when they enter a chute or when they step onto scales,” she said. “It feels really insecure to them.”
A short exercise illuminated those ideas. Stuenkel had six attendees create a temporary chute from a pair of white sheets, with three crossbars laid across the floor between them. Other participants formed into single file while placing the palm of their hand over their noses to replicate a cow’s peripheral vision. The resulting loss of depth perception sent people shuffling erratically and, invariably, stumbling over the crossbars. Heightening the sense of disorientation was the amount of noise erupting from the chute as two volunteers mimicked locking down the cattle and inoculating each one with a syringe while a third waved a lasso and yelled catcalls.
Studies have shown that cattle startle more from human noises than they do from mechanical noises, which is why some experts recommend that they be moved in total silence, Stuenkel said. She prefers to talk to them quietly as she herds them from pasture to pasture, using subjects ranging from daily headlines to grocery lists, her voice a measure of reassurance and authority.
“If I call them, they will come,” Stuenkel said. “They follow me like they would a big cow, but I don’t make pets out of them. I teach them from babies on to keep a healthy distance.”
When moving the herd, you should visualize what you want them to do and where you want them to go, she said. Concentrate on the goal and start moving in a zigzag pattern behind the herd. Turning them is as simple as moving to the opposite side of the direction you want them to go.
A cow’s shoulder is the pivot point for getting them to move, she added. If you want them to back up, stand in front of the shoulder; if you want them to move forward, stand behind the shoulder.
Familiarizing yourself and your cattle with these techniques takes time and experimentation, Stuenkel said. One of the easiest ways to practice is simply to take your herd for a walk. Get them used to your directions, your voice and, more importantly, your tone. The more you practice, the easier it gets. And above all, be calm. Cows can tune into your emotional state and make it their own, both individually and collectively, so that any sense of stress or anxiety will transfer to the herd as if they’re reading your mind. She’s seen it time and time again, usually when she’s in a hurry or overworked.
“It never fails,” she said. “If I have all day to move the herd, it’ll take about a half hour. If I don’t have all day, it will take all day.”
Delaying calving to the spring has made life easier for her crew and her cows. Her husband, like most local ranchers, bred heifers at 14 to 16 months, but she found it untenable. “That’s like expecting a 14- or 16-year-old girl to have a baby without assistance,” she said. “Not a good idea.”
Her heifers are born in April and May and bred 20 months later. One of the biggest benefits of spring calving is that the calves are born with their summer coats, and most calves are born in daylight.
“This is important,” she said. “Imagine yourself in a swimsuit. You’re wet and someone plops you down in the middle of the Arctic. How happy are you? Would you be a little stressed? It’s hard to keep them alive.”
Since switching to spring calving, she has seen no cases of scours, nor any of the health problems they had before. Plus, she said, the outdoor temperature is better.
The tips and techniques she uses are common sense approaches based more on cow psychology than traditional ranching practices, and they have been proven successful on Stuenkel’s operation. She stressed, however, that the techniques she used might not work on all farms, that some experimentation might be necessary.
“You have to decide what works for you and what doesn’t,” Stuenkel said. “You want cows that are still wild enough to respect you but tame enough to trust you.”
“Handling Cattle Without Getting Handled” was sponsored by Amazing Grazing III, a collaboration of the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Graziers Association, with funding from the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include KSRE, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, Frontier Farm Credit, NRCS-Kansas, and Kansas Center for Sustainable Ag and Alternative Crops.
For more information on other workshops sponsored by Amazing Grazing III, visit their Web site at AmazingGrazingKansas.com.