Empathy’s role in caring for food animals…

Most days I feel as though I have more savvy using empathy with my animals than I do with people.   Part of that is the fact that I spend more time interacting with animals than I do with people, and part of that is that I find communicating with my animals challenging and rewarding.  The satisfaction that I feel when I effectively communicate with my animals and watch them thrive on my cattle farm is similar to the “athletic high” that I used to feel competing in swimming and running.  The added bonus is that I know my hard work offering the best care to my animals will result in the production of the highest quality of beef that I will feed to my children and you will feed to yours.

A few weeks ago I talked about what is important to my cattle and how good care requires not only an understanding of how a calf thinks, but also being able to empathize with the animal and “view the world as he does”.  (See previous posts archived under the topic of Animal Welfare).  Humane care must be defined at the animal’s level in order for it to have qualitative meaning.

Have you ever tried to let go of your “human thoughts and tendencies” and truly put yourself in the place of an animal?  It is very challenging, and it is something that cannot be completely learned and understood without many hours of observation and interaction with the animal.  You can read about it in a book or listen to someone explain it, but “hands on” work with the animal is imperative to your success in offering quality care that is based on the needs of the animal.

For instance, I am a naturally “straight-line thinker” and a planner.  I am very logical and task oriented.  I want to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible.  This was a huge obstacle for me as I tried to understand my animals because they are not “task oriented” and what makes sense for them does not necessarily correspond with my view of the world.  They live in the present and they are concerned with survival.  They do not view the world in straight lines and “tasks”.  They are concerned with:

  1. Safety from predators (survival)
  2. Food
  3. Comfort
  4. Play

Safety from predators trumps everything else because a calf is a prey animal.  That is his genetic make-up and the way that his brain is constructed.  Food, comfort, and play come into effect when safety is insured.  Remember, my calves live in the present and are incapable of imagining the future.

So, how do I make that “Patchwork Quilt” that Ashley Grace describes (see Ashley Grace’s corner) as I understand and have empathy for my animals?  I let go of my human tendencies and thoughts, and focus on the qualities that go into being a good “prey animal leader”.

Can anyone offer any ideas of what qualities are necessary in order to be a good “prey animal leader”?  Please leave your ideas in the comment section of this post so that we can talk about them!


Filed under Animal Welfare, Ashley Grace's Corner and The Chick Project..., General

4 responses to “Empathy’s role in caring for food animals…

  1. Megan Burkholder

    1. calm
    2. confident
    3. consistent
    4. be firm/be THE BOSS
    5. understand the animal
    6. focus
    7. don’t give up! if it doesn’t work the first time/way keep trying or use a different way.

    Your Daughter,
    Megan Anne Burkholder

  2. cowdoc lana

    Like you Anne I grew up in the city (Buffalo NY) and sort of “stumbled” into cattle by serendipity. Sometimes not having preconceived notions about handling cattle, coupled with some good mentors is a winning combination for the animals.

    My experience is primarily with beef cows, not feed yard cattle – and one difference between the two is that the cows (and heifers) on my farm are retained and kept, sometimes for 15 or more years. As long as they keep their part of the contract, they can stay. This means to me that the time involved in early, calm, positive handling can pay off for years. Over time, as I learn more and more about cows in general and my cows in specific I have come to consider myself the benevolent “boss cow”.

    So what makes a good leader of a cow herd – how do you become the benevolent “boss cow”? – IMHO people who like cows, like being outside and like using their brains make the best “boss cows”, specifically

    1) Cow time – the cow moves at cow speed and you need to adapt to “cow time” – it requires patience and the ability to understand that they do not share your sense of urgency about doing what you want them to do. It is also nice to enjoy being outside in all kinds of weather.
    2) Cow think – cows are not stupid but they are wired differently than we are – concepts we find easy (down and around) are difficult for cows – if you understand how they think moving them is much more fun for all involved. One thing that hasn’t gotten much press in regards to moving cows is the signals they send to each other – example – you are moving cows from one paddock to another thru a 12 foot wide 24 foot long space. In this situation you are behind the cows when “suddenly” everyone comes to a halt – why did the last cow stop?? Why won’t she move – now a person could get all bent out of shape about this “bad cow” but in reality you are not paying attention – a “higher ranking” cow is sending signals that the last cow is not to move. As the “boss cow” I move up to tell the higher ranking cow to move and things then progress smoothly
    3) Cow motivation – what do cows want? High on the list is food – use that motivation to move cows. Cows that are rotationally grazed learn to follow because at the end of the journey is fresh grass. Moving cows every day gets them (and their calves) used to being interacted with by humans – so they are not afraid of people and used to the sound of the human voice. My cows have little or no flight zone, so they don’t move like it says “in the book” – they follow out to pasture and when I want to move them back I get behind and say “everybody go” – it doesn’t take long for them to get with the system. I practice moving calves, separating the calf from its “friends”, moving him up an alley etc – this keeps my skills at moving cows with a flight zone intact
    4) Watching cows – you can get a real good idea of their social interactions, their priorities, their approach to life by watching them and then using what you see in your interactions with them
    4) Less than idea facilities are not an excuse – use your brain to overcome less than ideal facilities – many of us use existing barns and so things may not always be like they are “in the book” but if you understand cows and use your brain you can work around these obstacles. Of course it helps if your cattle are calm and you are patient and those interactions are mutually reinforcing
    5) Know when to walk away – most of the time when cows don’t do what we want it is because we are unclear in expressing to them what we want them to do – if your blood pressure is rising – walk away and figure out a better way. One of my favorite examples of cow being smart and human being dumb is the guy yelling and cursing and ranting and raving at the cow because she won’t come by him – he calls her stupid; I think her behavior is perfectly rational – well what idiot wants to get near a yelling screaming human?
    6) Enjoy what you do and your interactions with cattle and nature
    7) There is a saying in dog training “the handler gets the dog s/he deserves” – I think the same is true with cattle – interacting with cattle should be mutually beneficial and at the end of the day the human should be happy and the cow satisfied

    Great topic

  3. Pingback: A Humane Caregiver…Part 1 (Animal lover + food animal caregiver) | Feed Yard Foodie

  4. Pingback: What’s Your Perspective? | Feed Yard Foodie

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