Monday, April 2, 2012

My heifer and I see eye to eye (Family milk cow project)

To see the previous post from the family milk cow project, click here.  
To see the next post in the milk cow project, click here

An inqusitive nose and rough holstein tongue

I think I should talk a bit about my experience here.  I have NO experience with dairy cows.  I've never milked a cow.  I've never bred a cow.  I do have a few steers around that I bottle fed, and that I eat, but a dairy cow is different, so what I'm talking about here is my theory about cows, but you can rest assured that there are lots of folks who know a heck of a lot more about dairy cows than I do.    I have a basic understanding of cows from having kept those steers for a few years, but dairy cow management is new to me.   

With a steer, if you have good fences, you wean it, and then put it out to pasture.  Some minerals, some basic care, look at the trough every now and then, rotate the grazing area.  Its pretty straightforward, and you really don't have to get very close to them.  Since my calves were bottle babies they were pretty friendly -- too friendly -- but I don't have to get close to them, nor do I really have to handle them much.  There's the grass, go enjoy yourselves, steers!

With a dairy cow it's a much more intimate relationship; you'll be handling her probably twice a day for 10 months of the year for the next 5 or 10 years.  I want her to be sweet and gentle and trusting because I don't want to be kicked any more than I have to.  and I'm guessing I'll get kicked anyway, but I'm hoping I won't be. 

This little cow has had a pretty stressful auction day; I didn't get her back to the farm until long after dark, and so I gave her some hay and water and left her in the trailer until morning. 

I don't own a horse, and never have; I've never used a halter.  I guess it's fair, because this little cow has never seen a halter either.  A trip to the feed store and $10 later, I've got a halter.  I chose 20' of 5/8" poly rope as a lead rope.  It's soft, has a working load of about 300lbs, and holds knots well.  Plus I know that 20' gives me the chance to do a body belay if I need to.  The cow does weigh 400lbs, after all, and if she gets going, that's a lot of force. 

The goal of this is to teach the cow to respect a halter and a rope.  My plan was to put the halter on, tie a rope to the halter, and then snub the rope off something in the trailer.  She'd find out that she was being restricted, and pull on the rope, and hopefully learn pretty quickly that this was a bad idea. 

She's a pretty curious, friendly girl, and after a few minutes I was able to stand beside her and scratch her ears and back; she seemed to enjoy that; and I reached over her head, and slipped the halter onto her from the bottom; a little surprise jerk, but it was on, and a couple of seconds later...  I found that the halter was much too big. 
My high-tech halter modification tool:  A heated nail

I got an idea of where it needed to be adjusted, and then used a heated nail to melt new holes for 3" on either side of the halter strap.  Back to the little cow who had an idea of what I was after, and a couple of tense minutes later I had the halter back on and snug.  Ok.  That wasn't too bad. 

Mind you, this is the first time that she's ever had a halter, and I let her get used to the idea for a while, and then tie the lead rope on.  I use a bowline because it's easy to untie after its been stressed, and for some reason I think that it might get some stress. 
Whew.  No one got hurt, she's calm, I'm calm.  Life is good.  Now for the education time.

I tie her off to the middle gate in the trailer, and gradually shorten the rope until she notices that she's tied.  I watch carefully to make sure that she's not hurting herself, because I'm not sure how she'll react.  She might panic; I just don't know.  There is some frantic backing up, and then some side to side and she clearly doesn't like it at all, but after about 15 minutes, she calms down, and after another 15 minutes seems resigned to being tied.
So out of the trailer we go; I'm walking my cow!  Well... she's walking me!  She's got a pretty strong pull with her four legs, and I'm doing the body belay, and I'm really glad I got 20' of rope. 

We have a 10 minute discussion via the rope about appropriate cow behavior, and when we come to an agreement, she seems to have learned that fighting the rope is useless.  So far this has been simpler than teaching a puppy to be on a leash.  I'm pretty surprised. 
So I lead her over to a nice patch of grass in the pasture, and tie her to a handy telephone pole. 
So here's where she sits for 90 minutes.  She doesn't like the rope and spends part of the time pulling against the telephone pole and part of the time grazing.  I watch her the entire time; I'm worried that she'll get the rope tangled around her or will bolt and hurt herself, and she does get tangled a couple of times, but nothing major, and after 3 hours, I'm very happy with the progress. 

I'll work with her every day until I'm confident that she understands and respects the halter; later I'll use the halter to hold her while I'm milking her.  I want her to be used to being tied and led. I want her to recognize that when she's haltered its time to be calm and relaxed. 

Repetition and consistency will get me that result.  I'm pretty happy with day 2.


sheila said...

Cows don't kick like horses. They generally do a half hearted kick in your direction, but don't take aim like a horse will. Many 1st calf heifers will mildly try to kick off the milker the first few times they are milked, but it's not usually a big deal. Rarely will you end up with a cow that is difficult. I milked 50 twice a day for years and can only remember one cow that I just didn't get along with and sold. Many others had to be culled for other reasons, but only one was culled because she had a nasty disposition. Also, I was never injured by a cow in 30 years of living on a dairy farm. Bulls are another story. Wouldn't trust a Holstein bull for 5 seconds.

Working with your heifer daily is the key. She will be calm and easy to handle if she respects you, but is not fearfull of you. Let her know you are the benovelent bearer of the food, but you won't put up with her pushing you around either.

Bruce King said...

I've had steers do a pretty good back kick; they are holstein steers - maybe it's the bull showing? I've had many people warn me about dairy bulls; apparently they're pretty widely known as bad news.

I've been using a little feed as a bribe, and spent a half hour walking her around with the lead rope today. I'd like to be able to have her graze areas on leash. Does that seem like a reasonable goal?

becky3086 said...

Very interesting. I don't know anything about cows so am not sure I would have even thought of all this. I do like it when I learn something totally new. I think you are doing very well.

Garand Gal said...

You might find this useful:
it's a link to the section of the 4-H market steer handbook on training the steer. I think the techniques would work fine for a dairy heifer as well. I would underscore tying the heifer short and high. Not as pleasant for her, but much safer.
She looks like a real sweetheart. I like her top line. Do you have a pedigree on her?

Garand Gal said...

I've known some cows and heifers to kick with pinpoint accuracy. I think it just depends on how motivated they are to kick you, and as with most animals you're safer if you stay close to their rumps, it's more like a push then. What our ornery cows excelled at was grinding. If you had to get between the cows and they didn't want you there, they'd lean on you and grind you into their neighbor, wall, what have you. If you managed to put two ornery cows next to each other that was something you wanted to change right away or you'd be so much hamburger between those hooks and pins.

sheila said...

Never thought of grazing a cow on lead rope. With a herd that was never an option. I suppose it would be possible, but I'd never let a cow out of my sight while she was tied. Like any animal they can wrap or tangle themselves. I'd be worried about the safety of an unsupervised animal tied like that.

Andrew said...

Aaahh, the old heated nail trick. I don't think I have a single dog collar without a nail-hole melted through it somewhere.

Have you decided what you're going to breed your heifer with? I hear Holsteins are pretty bad about throwing big calves and having difficult deliveries. My only direct experience with them is having had a few as bottle calves that became hamburger.

Bruce King said...

Garand: Thanks for the link to training a steer. I've been trying to figure out what i'd like her to learn, so that helps a lot.
My experience with my dairy steers is that they can aim and kick. They haven't figured out grinding, which I'm REALLY glad about. They are just too darned big; they'd squish me like a bug if they wanted to.

Bruce King said...

Sheila: I worried about tangle, too -- which is why I sat and watched as she figured it out. What I wanted her to get is that fighting the rope is useless, and she got there about 2 hours into it After that she spent some time figuring out how far she could go, and relaxed a bit. I took her off the lead when I put her in the barn for the night. I won't leave her leashed untended.

Bruce King said...

ajohnmeyer: That's something I haven't thought about. Maybe a beef breed to throw a smaller calf is what you're saying?

I had thought about AI as my first plan, although I could probably find a beef bull around here. I don't know what the breeding fee is.

Bruce King said...

Garand: I don't have the pedigree on her; the dairy is out of business and the buyer didn't have the pedigree information, but she does have a nice topline, and her weight is exactly what it should be at 6 months of age, which matches her reported birth date of october.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Nice heifer Bruce! Tethering works great as long as they "know the ropes" and you don't leave them where they can potentially fall down an embankment or incline or something. Just make sure your snap has a swivel so it can't bind up and you should be good to go. Livestock has been tethered for centuries and still is in other countries. I call our milk cow our rear bagger, since she does lots a yard mowing ;)

Her halter looks a little tight around the nose/jaw area, which may restrict her eating.

She's a pretty thing! If you AI ask for a low birth weight bull (any breed) for her first calf. Beef/dairy crosses make great cows and even pretty good milk cows too for a family, and they aren't quite so prone to metabolic disease as they are going to produce as much milk.

Joanne said...

The first cow we had when we moved out here was an Angus/Gernsey cross. She was an FFA calf and had milk that was so high in butter fat it was yellow and had a big cream line. We had her AI'd to a hereford bull who was supposed to throw small calves, but the bull calf she had was huge and tore her up. Whe was barren after that. I don't know if we got the wrong bull or it was hybrid vigor, but you can wind up with a calf that's too big even if you do try for a low birth weight bull.

Our cow was taught to graze on a line. My partner who grew up with cattle on a farm in Missouri used a section of heavy chain between the halter and the rope. He said it was harder for a heavy chain to get bound up around her legs/pasterns and give her a burn. Also it was harder for the chain to get wedged between her toes.

I have goats right now that I'm fattening for slaughter. I'm currently grazing them on lines in the back yard. Animals who know how to graze on a line are so handy. You can take them out and selectively graze different areas with out having to build or move fencing and you can graze them in areas where there are plants you don't want grazed as long as your line holds.

Good luck with her. She's very nice looking. I miss our old cow and one of these days I'd love to have a nice Jersey. I got hooked on Jersey milk for cheese making and for butter last year.

Stevie Taylor said...

Good work. Sounds like you have the patience and dedication ot get her halter trained. all that attitude and good effort will pay off with most critters. They know when you're trying to teach them and when you're trying to force them and they sure don't like the latter!

Barefoot Farm and Flowers said...

Here is a very helpful link to the Keeping a Family Cow proboards. Very kind and helpful people. You can scroll down the home page to find lots of useful info as well as post your own questions.