Learning how cattle react is critical

Jan Shepel
Now Media Group


Handling cattle is as simple and as complicated as figuring out how the critters learn, said Don Hoglund, DVM, who spent 300 days on the road last year helping people learn better and safer ways to get things done around cattle.

'There's nothing magic,' he said. 'It's all about understanding animal behavior and how they learn.'

During the recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin annual business conference in Madison, a number of hands-on sessions were offered. During one of those sessions, Hoglund worked with groups of dairy farmers and students on ways to quietly, efficiently and safely move cattle.

'Animals are easy to train,' he said. 'This course is about training humans.'

He used a group of young dairy heifers in a corral in the new pavilion at the Alliant Energy Center to demonstrate his techniques. Some of what he knows came from his work as a veterinary practitioner, from his recent work as a clinician training horse trainers and cattle owners and some came from his 20 years of experience in the entertainment world. Hoglund worked on the film 'Dances with Wolves' and with the Walt Disney Company's production team setting up a 'Wild West Show' in Paris, which has been successful ever since.

But when he's on the road working with dairy cattle owners and their staffers who work with cattle, he tries to get people to concentrate on moving cattle with safety in mind and keep it all quiet and low key.

One of Hoglund's key points, which he stressed many times during his presentation, is that 'what animals think or feel is unknowable.' What we do know as animal handlers is what we can observe. 'We don't know what the human sitting next to us is thinking or feeling — she would have to tell you, using language.'

Peppering his audience with questions about animals, he made the point that emotion in animals is largely unknowable. 'No high-tech neuroscience has ever been done on the animal science side. Emotion in animals has never been validated scientifically,' he added. 'I didn't say animals don't have emotions. You don't know things you can't know.

'As a vet and an animal trainer I'm not involved in what they think and feel but what they do. There's no evidence that the animal understands its training, but it understands your presence and your action.'

As an animal handler, he said, you are rewarding the desired behavior by taking something away and reducing aversive stimulus and that in turn reinforces the desired behavior. When people hear the term 'negative reinforcement' they think 'punishment,' he said.

But the method he demonstrated involves moving toward cattle and away from them to either add energy or subtract it from the interaction. It's what he calls low-energy cattle handling.

'We're just doing things — standing here, moving there — and it involves doing things safely. If it's not safe you can't do it.'

His process involves having people learn to move toward a group of cattle, stepping forward or backward to cut them out of the group or hold them in a corner. It doesn't involve waving arms —in fact, he prefers people move quietly with their hands stuck in their pockets to ensure there is no arm waving.

'And don't whistle at them. That just annoys them,' he said.

Hoglund also made the point that dairy cows should not be yelled at. 'That affects them as severely as hitting them in terms of milk production. This has been well documented by many studies.'

He encouraged his pupils to not react when the cattle react. 'Take the energy out of it. That's why we call this low-energy cattle handling.'

Walking toward cattle in a zig-zag pattern is another way to move them around without putting too much stress on them. 'If you're too close there's too much energy,' he said. 'Being further away reduces the energy.'

When he goes on farms to help farmers and their staffers learn his methods, Hoglund said the first day is generally chaos but on day two people learn what it's all about and by day three 'everybody gets really good at it. Almost all the time they really like this training.'

The worst thing a cattle owner can do is take their workers out of the picture and try to do it all themselves. 'That destroys their self esteem,' he said of the workers. Everyone who works cattle on the farm should learn to use the same methods. 'Staff has to all be taught the same. You need consistency.'

And he feels it's important for people to learn this process by doing it themselves. 'You can't learn how to play the piano by watching someone else do it,' he quipped.

Part of his training is helping people understand the cow's physical limitations, like her blind spot in back and how the ear and eye on the same side work together. His method involves working the cattle from the side to take into consideration the physiology of cattle.

'Once she gets an eye on you this is just a question of you moving. If you move faster it increases the energy. If you step toward them and they don't move you have to put more energy in.'

Train young heifers

Hoglund made the point that young dairy cattle don't know how to herd. 'For everything that has happened to them in their lives so far they have faced you,' he said. 'And everything they faced you for was good, except getting an ear tag. They spent 65 days facing you in the hutches as you brought them food and water.'

Dairy calves can develop what he called 'orphan syndrome.' Babies that get 'loved on' and handled like a pet have the potential to become aggressive cattle later in their lives. For a dairy heifer that has developed this problem, he suggested training her in a pen by herself. 'If you don't correct it, it will keep happening.'

What might be needed to work with one of these aggressive 'orphan syndrome' calves is to halter train her and 'subordinate' her so she will become compliant to humans. According to Hoglund, this works '30 percent of the time.'

After his presentation, he told Wisconsin State Farmer that he hopes dairy farmers learn how to protect themselves and look out for the safety of their cattle. 'I'm being more careful and I'm teaching people to be more careful. This is a skill that is learned through practice.'

He hopes his students learn to 'eliminate the idea that you get into the animals' heads' because we don't know and can't know what animals are thinking or feeling.

Consumers are concerned about animal welfare and animal care, he noted, but it can be tough to come up with definitions to cover some of the things some people believe about animals.

He thinks it is wrong for people to assume they know what an animal feels or thinks. Defining emotions and thoughts of an animal is especially difficult.

'I have no idea what she's thinking,' Hoglund said. 'We need to quit trying to explain animal behavior in terms of what it is thinking and feeling. I'm not saying that they don't think or feel; it's just not helping you.'

Humane issues

Hoglund's experience also includes training cutting horses and cow horses – and their handlers. He was also called in to help figure out how to save a group of wild horses on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in 1994.

He organized and led a group of volunteers who removed about 2,000 wild horses from the missile range to an Oklahoma wild horse sanctuary, because they were no longer safe on the missile range. The story of this experience was chronicled in a book Hoglund wrote called 'Nobody's Horses.'

When it comes to humane issues on the farm, Hoglund encouraged his dairy audience to have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the handling of certain cattle -- down cows for example. As a cattle owner, handler or veterinarian, the first step is to assess why she's down. Does she have milk fever?

Lifting the tail can offer clues as to whether or not she has power in her back end. The exam should determine if she can retract her legs.

The SOP should include a way to move the cow using a carpet or sled if she's in the way of other cattle or in a spot that's not good for her.

For more on this topic and Dr. Don Hoglund's methods, visit www.dairystockmanship.com.