The expression “until the cows come home” can mean one of two things. Either the cows are expected to come home for milking and will be there or else it can mean waiting a very, very long time. Getting aligned with the routine of these creatures of habit is a daily activity on dairy farms and when it moves along smoothly it`s great but too often the opposite is true and it becomes a daily frustration. When cows refuse to move easily from one location to another or one activity to another, it costs time and money. Both bovine and human stress levels can skyrocket with a corresponding rise in injuries.
It`s Time to Get A Handle on Handling
When day to day interaction between cows and handlers results in injuries to either party there are lost workdays and decreased milk production. It’s easy to point the finger of blame at human handlers. However, for this interaction to work successfully both sides have to be calm. Handlers need to calm plus reassuring. As a result, cows will be calm plus comfortable.
Is Your Cattle Comfort Checklist as Ticked Off as Your Cows?
- Cows behave unnaturally and stand or lie down uneasily.
- Patches of rubbed-off hair and injuries to hocks and knees indicate that, when rising or lying down, cows are repeatedly rubbing on stall partitions or neck rails.
- When cows are moving, they have an unsteady gait. If they are walking slowly, or timidly, with rear feet spread wide, this is a sign of poor traction and that something is negatively affecting their confidence in their footing.
- Mastitis, sore feet and swollen hocks are also signs that handling needs attention.
- If more than 20 percent of the cows defecate in the parlor, the cause needs to be determined.
- All concrete should be grooved to make it less slippery.
- Check stray voltage
- Confirm that milkers are calm and reassuring as they handle and milk cows.
- Maintain routine contact with animals to retain familiarity
Quick Changes … Get Cow Comfort Corrected
Cow Kindness not Over-Rated!
Temple Grandin, remarkable advocate of animal caretaking, Karen Lancaster, from England, and other experts who consult and provide cow handling seminars are agreed on one basic premise. “When the cows are happy, we know they eat more, when they eat more they make more milk.” Results report that cow comfort can mean the difference of several thousand pounds of rolling herd average milk production between two herds of similar genetics and rations. Simply upgrading a cow’s surroundings to light, clean and airy can radically move the following five performance parameters in the right direction.
- Animal Welfare
- Quality of life
It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that light, clean and airy can improve the same five criteria for the human dairy staff as well: production; performance; efficiency; safety; personal welfare and quality of work-life.
Put Yourself in the Cow’s Position
When we are consulting in business or trying to improve our personal working conditions, we often advise peers and clients to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. It isn’t bad advice when considering the best ways to handle our bovine workforce. Imagine yourself in the milking set up, the stall or the alleyways and pastures in between. Consider the logistics of size and ask yourself if this would be an area you would want to walk, sleep or work hard in? Cold, dark and damp are probably NOT the three top features you would be seeking out.
If you are eager to remind me that some cows are just “difficult,” perhaps it’s time to consider the same label can be applied to complaining cow handlers. I continue to be amazed that people who wouldn’t think of yelling at each other, or pushing or shoving, find that style an easy one to adopt when moving calves, heifers or cows.
One Video is Worth a 1000 Words
You can find a lot of enlightening advice from online videos on cattle handling.
No man or animal likes surprises or walking (or being pushed) into dangerous situations and it is important to give consideration to the actual sightlines of the animals. When calves and cows learn to trust that you have their interests at heart, they will be ready and responsive to your commands.
Cattle are creatures of habit and they have long memories. It’s a good idea to “start the way you want to end.” From first contact as calves … to final turnout to greener pastures… your interaction with herd and individuals should be calm, consistent and kind.
Talk Softly and DON’T Carry a Big Stick!
Dr. Joep Driessen, Director/Owner of CowSignals Training Company, says research shows that women get 10 percent more milk out of cows.” He suggests that farmers modulate their barn voices to more soothing tones. “Women are more gentle and cows like the soft voice of the women more.” All cow handling consultants insist that shouting at cows won’t help, because loud human voices stress cows even more than being physically slapped.
Curt Pate, well known for low stress cattle handling, has a list of tips which include the following:
- Make sure the cattle can see you.
- Don’t make sharp, loud noises.
- Don’t rush the animals.
- Use cattle prods and other equipment as little as possible.
“Farmers who don’t follow these guidelines and rush their animals harass them with noise or prod them unnecessarily risk raising their stress, increasing sickness and lowering production,” says Pate.
When trying to move cows, the handler needs be aware of his/her timing, angle, speed and direction of approach.
Obviously, the handler has to plan ahead where he/she wants to move the cows so that clear signals for the direction can be given.
If the handler can’t see a cow’s eye, the cow can’t see the handler and so the cow won’t be able to respond to the handler’s signals.
Part of the timing during cattle handling is to give cows time to react to the handler’s signals and to release the pressure once cows are starting to do what you asked of them.
Who Needs the Training First? Cows? Handlers?
Many times a situation on the dairy farm has become so repetitive that the only interaction certain individuals have with the cows is negative. It is necessary to see yourself as part of a team that involves the cows. Good behavior should be rewarded and repeated.
An interesting finding of one survey was that herds that had previous stockmanship training tended to have about 1,760 pounds higher rolling herd average than herds that did not – even after accounting for the herd size.
Studies have shown that if cows are stressed, adrenalin will diminish the oxytocin response and their milk let down will be impaired. As a result, cows will not milk out and producers will lose milk. In addition, stressed cows are more likely to defecate or urinate as well as kick in the parlor – none of which are particularly pleasant for the people working in the parlor and will likely affect their attitude towards work, as well.
Regularly revisit animal handling protocols to determine if updates are needed.
DIY or Experts … Who do You Turn to?
Training is traditionally done by herd owners or managers who have learned cattle handling predominantly from family members or by trial-and-error. However, today, in particular producers of larger farms (>200 milking cows), managers seek out low-stress handling training seminars to learn more about best cattle handling practices. There is an abundance of resources to take your herd handling to the next level. Online articles and videos are available from world renowned experts such as Temple Grandin and Dr. Joep Driessen. Several well-respected animal handlers are available for onsite farm demonstrations or seminars for groups. Of course, you can send out a call for help and your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn connections may be ready to give you help.
Bullvine Bottom Line
There are many good reasons to improve, modify and make over your cattle handling techniques. With daily opportunities for improvement, it’s safe to say that, although the practice may not make perfect, it can forge a willing and productive partnership between cows and farm staff.
Now everyone can handle that!