Understanding how a calf thinks and what he needs…A cornerstone of good care.

One of the greatest lessons that I learned at Dartmouth College was to always search for additional knowledge and understanding in everything that I do.  I learned to question, I learned to problem solve, and I learned to be a student of the world around me.

Prey animals, like cattle, are always offering feedback and communication.  It is very different from human communication and the caregiver must be very aware and “in tune” with the animals to take part in the communication.  A focused caregiver not only teaches his/her animals, but also interacts and learns from them.  This takes an open mind, the ability to problem solve and the willingness to be a student of your environment.

So, if you were to want to handle and care for cattle, what would you need to know?

  1. Cattle are animals that are “preyed upon”—in other words, animals that are eaten by other animals. (Ex. Cattle, Horses, Deer, Squirrels).
  2. The bodies and minds of cattle are designed to ensure survival.
  3. Cattle are herbivores (plant eaters).
  4. When a calf is scared or under stress, he will revert into “instinctual thinking” which means he will either flight (flee from perceived danger) or fight if he is unable to flee.  Cattle do not effectively learn when they are in an “instinctual state”.
  5. Cattle are herd animals so they like to be with other cattle and will naturally flow together.  There is “safety in numbers” for them and there will be a unique set of dynamics (hierarchy) within the herd.
  6. Cattle have eyes that are positioned toward the side of their heads in order to allow them to search more effectively for predators (those that will harm them).  Their peripheral vision is outstanding and when a calf is grazing with its head down he can see almost all of the way around himself.  However, this eye shape and placement means that the calf has terrible depth perception.
  7. Cattle have long legs…can you guess why?  So that they can run quickly if they need to flee!
  8. Cattle are very capable of learning especially if  they are “thinking” and not in an instinctual frame of mind.
  9. Cattle are very subtle in their communication and are constantly sending non-verbal messages to one another.
  10. When cattle are in a “learning state”, they are very curious.  This makes them relatively easy to train as long as they remain calm and in that “learning state”.

When you look at the concept of prey animal psychology, being open minded enough to interact with your animals is imperative.  It is my goal at the cattle feedyard to teach my animals to interact with me without fear, and with a “thinking” mind frame.  When I can get my cattle to trust me and view me as their leader (instead of a predator), caring for them becomes much easier and more effective.   They will allow me to influence the rate and direction of their movement, and we will have an effective two way conversation.  They will be more likely to show me when they are sick or need help.  They also will be more comfortable in their environment which keeps them healthier, happier and more productive.

1 Comment

Filed under Animal Welfare, CAFO, General

One response to “Understanding how a calf thinks and what he needs…A cornerstone of good care.

  1. Rex Peterson

    Great blog.
    Some more thoughts on animal behavior after moving a herd of mostly first calf heifers several days ago.
    Fifteen years ago, I watched 50 ewes with a guard dog being attacted by a pair of coyotes. The sheep pushed into a bunch with each one trying to be in the middle. The guard dog tried to place itself betwen the coyotes and the sheep. The coyotes tried to spread the defense and draw the dog away. The strongest sheep ended up in the middle of the pile.
    Back o the heifers.
    Coming out the gate into the road, the calves and cows separated. partly due to a big puddle and partly the lush brome grass in the road ditch. So we gathered and held them and them across the road and had to go through a hole in a fence to get them onto the road; again the calves separated. As the cows started coming back to the calves, I realized from their behavior that it was quite normal to bellow and scare other calves or push between pairs to put other calves in the back of the bunch. In herd behavior, it is quite all right to throw someone elses baby to the wolves.

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