Stockmanship: Cow rules; people rules

Cattle are like people. Their behavior is a product of their genetic makeup, their past environment and their present environment.

Dr. Margaret Perala, a professional animal managing instructor, zeroed in on these similarities to help dairy producers fine-tune their dairy stockmanship skills during a “Cow Handling for Everyday and When Critical Care is Needed” session at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s 2011 Business Conference.

Perala used multipler video segments throughout her presentation to underscore the positive results of good stockmanship and how negative cow handling tend to produce negative results.

“Just getting a job done is not the only criteria for competency,” Perala stated. “Top-notch dairy stockman skills result in less stress on the cattle and less stress on workers.”

A veterinarian, Perala explained that communication with cows extends to five areas: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste.

“A cow’s brain gets input from her five senses,” Perala stated, “Knowing this has resulted in identifying best practice stockmanship skills that involve being aware of all five senses.” She especially called for the use of pressure—not a touch but a presence of a person—to achieve desired results.”

“Further, cows want to see what is pressuring them, tend to go around the pressure and want to release the pressure. When we use pressure correctly, we can get cows to do what we want in a calm, controlled and gentle manner,” she said.

Perala went on to explain five additional “cow rules”:
1) Conflicting pressure confuses cows, since cows can only focus on one thing at a time;
2) Cows want to follow other cows;
3) Cows want to return to where they came from;
4) Cows want to move in the direction they face; and
5) Each day the cow or cows will respond differently.

Perala also stressed that only one person should pressure a cow at a time.
Perala’s list of “people rules” when handling cows proved longer than her “cow rules”:

1) The cow is always right;

2) Never cheat—be consistent in your handling methods even if they initially take more time;

3) See everything, yet look at nothing—be patient and know that the animal’s every interaction with people is important and has repercussions;

4) Work in the pressure area—work where the cow can see you and work “inside” the circle;

5) Do not predetermine your actions.

6) Pressure properly. “Animals should be pressured from the side, and your hands should be in your pockets and not flying about in the air. Timing of the pressure, angle of the pressure and speed are also extremely important. Slow is good.”

She added, “We have to teach animals to take pressure, and it will be a learning process for you when it comes to knowing how much and where to apply pressure.”

7) Teach animals so they remain calm and do what is the handler wants. This requires the handler to first use stockmanship skills to slow down the animals, then stop them, start them slowly and turn them. And all of these steps can be accomplished, she said, by teaching the animals to take pressure and having the stockman apply pressure correctly.

8) Properly start movement. “Greater pressure is required to start movement,” Perala stated. “We use less pressure to drive and guide animals and more pressure to start movement.”

“Starting movement properly is extremely important. And once we start movement we should keep the movement going, calmly, and avoid constantly stopping motion. “

Perala’s last four “people rules” all involved how to keep animals moving as desired. The animal managing instructor advised a handler to rock back and forth gently, swaying from one side to another when moving animals, and to walk straight rather than run back and forth. She also pointed out that walking with the cows will slow them down while walking against the cows will speed them up.

“So if you want to move cattle forward a bit faster, walk against them, going head to rump,” she explained. “Again, don’t run or move too quickly and frighten them. Move with purpose and ease.

“Cows tend to walk at 2 miles per hour while people tend to walk 3 to 4 miles per hour.”

Perala underscored the “rules” with video that illustrated the correct and the not-correct ways of cattle handling. She also stressed that every interaction—whether positive or negative—shapes cow behavior and working cows properly will get the behavior people want.

She urged producers to not overpressure and to not shout—except when in danger. Excess of anything from loud music to whistling to voices should be avoided.
She did note that soft whistling or gentle humming is OK if it helps the handler remain calm.

“If you get animals going in the direction you want, they’ll go. A distraction of any kind, however, will interrupt that flow,” she explained, adding that a distraction might be a person in the wrong place, a jacket on a fence, a dog, etc.

The animal handling expert said people can become “leaders” when they create “honest communication” with their cattle, and that cattle arriving at a new facility or pen are open to being worked properly. In addition, she noted that cattle respond positively to leadership.

“Working new animals on arrival using correct handling methods pays,” she stated. “They learn what is expected of them and this communication and stockmanship will set the pace while they are at that facility.”

When it comes to handling bulls, Perala urged producers to always remember that “bulls are bulls” and have no fear of people since people have been their source of food since they were calves.

“The trick with bulls is starting him early and teach him to respect you,” she stated. “But always be super careful with dairy bulls.”