Be the Cow A revolutionary approach to better cow movement and handling

December 2, 2009 06:00 PM
University of Minnesota herdsman Jim Lewis is able to move cows easily and gently using techniques perfected in the beef industry.
Paul Rapnicki quietly enters a pen of springing heifers that are just days away from calving.

The heifers immediately notice his presence, but as the University of Minnesota (U of M) veterinarian slowly approaches them, they don't panic. Without speaking or even moving an arm, he comes alongside of them. The closest heifer turns slightly and starts moving forward.

Rapnicki stays to her right side, maybe 8' away, but in clear view of her lateral vision. Slowly, the whole group of heifers starts to move down the alley between the headlocks and freestalls. The veterinarian slows his pace a bit, but the heifers keep ambling along.

One of the heifers stops and turns. She's lost sight of Rapnicki behind her, and turns her head to find him.

Rapnicki rocks forward, still neither speaking nor so much as raising his hand. The heifer picks up his sight, feels his presence and starts moving forward again.

Within a few minutes, the group has walked down the alley, turned into a cross alley and entered the drover's lane that leads to the milking parlor. In no time, they're in the holding pen. And here, using the same body presence technique, Rapnicki directs them one by one into the single-row parallel parlor.

Never once has Rapnicki spoken.

Or whistled. Or raised a hand. By simply working calmly with the heifers, using his body presence to alternately pressure and release, he's moved these novice females into the parlor to acclimate them to the milking routine.

The story here is not that Rapnicki can almost will this group of heifers around the U of M's Transition Management Facility (TMF) near Baldwin, Wis. Rather, Rapnicki and TMF herdsman Jim Lewis are convinced the technique can be used anywhere, anytime, with any group of cattle.

Rapnicki and Lewis have been learning from Bud Williams and veterinarian Tom Noffsinger, both renowned in beef cattle circles for applying pressure-and-release herding techniques.

In fact, Lewis and Rapnicki say, the entire dairy industry desperately needs to learn these techniques to improve cow handling, safety and welfare. The bottom line: Such gentle, almost stress-free handling leads to better productivity as well.

"A lot of this is about attitude toward the cow,” Rapnicki says. "If you can change the attitude of the workers handling cattle, you can change their behavior toward the cow, which in turn gets a better response from the cow.”

Too often, though, dairy producers and their employees view cattle as being no brighter than a fence post. And that's just not true. The misconception comes because cows are simply exhibiting their normal behavior as herd animals and as a prey species.

As humans and as a predator species, dairy employees do what comes naturally to them: They move quickly, shout, whistle, slap—anything to get the cow's attention in an attempt to get her to move where the human wants her to go.

"We usually get exactly the response we don't want,” Rapnicki says. Quick movements, loud sounds and physical hitting all create fear in the animal. Cattle quickly associate humans with this kind of behavior, making them difficult to handle and control.

"We are smarter than the cow, so we need to communicate to her in a positive way that she understands in order to get her to do what she naturally does. Our approach is not training cows to do something, but allowing them to simply act naturally,” Rapnicki says.

As a herd species, cattle want leadership. "The human has to become the leader—the boss cow—and direct the animal with purpose,” Rapnicki says. "Understand this and you no longer have to ‘force' cows to do something.”

Animal behaviorists talk about the "flight zone” of prey animals. The closer a predator gets to a deer, the more nervous the deer becomes. If the predator gets too close, the prey animal bolts away to escape.

Domesticated cattle, and dairy cattle in particular, have much smaller flight zones than wildlife. But they still have a "pressure zone” surrounding their body. Think of it as an oblong area with the cow in the center.

As a person enters this pressure zone, the cow senses the presence and will move to avoid the person. But these zones are not the same for every animal or for every situation—even with the same animal. "An animal's flight zone is like a bubble that is constantly moving and changing,” Rapnicki says.

"Sometimes, the best position for some animals is outside the pen in the feed alley. It will differ with heifers and cows, depending on how they've been handled in the past,” he says.

Cattle have excellent peripheral vision. To move cattle in the direction you want them to go, it is often best to be on either side and slightly off their flank. As you slowly move forward, the animal senses your presence and starts to move forward as well.

But as soon as she starts moving, you have to slow down. Otherwise, you are likely to overtake her. If you do, the cow might stop and reverse direction to avoid being overpressured at her front. It takes practice, observation and patience to understand cow behavior.

As a prey species, cattle are extremely sensitive to sudden, loud noises. Yelling or whistling causes a fear reaction, resulting in unexpected movement or panic.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that calmly talking to cows will quiet them. "But if talking quietly calms the person handling the cows, it's OK because then the person will be calmer and gentler in his approach to the cows,” Rapnicki says.

Bonus content:

Spanish translation

Fear Pheromones

The "Bud" Box

ProHand Dairy

More on dairy stockmanship

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