A couple of weeks ago at the International Symposium of Beef Cattle Welfare, I heard Dr. David Fraser speak about the conflicting ideas of “romantic” vs “industrial” thoughts toward animal welfare. Listening to his presentation cemented my belief that I was a conflicted romantic and pragmatic animal welfare supporter.
Saturday morning while exercising calves during a beautiful sunrise, it occurred to me that perhaps I am so drawn to cattle psychology because it is where the romantic meets the pragmatist.
I had spent the week working with some 550 weight fall born calves which arrived at the feed yard anxious and unsettled. The first morning they waited grouped together in the back corner of the pen too unconfident to actively seek the feed bunk. Using great care, I entered the home pen and asked them to move in straight lines seeking to engage the “thinking” part of their brains. I then gently asked them to exit the pen gate and travel down the alleyway. Sensitive to their large flight zone, I used very mild alternate pressure to guide their movement.
After working with them in the main corral for a few minutes, I asked them to again travel back to the home pen where fresh breakfast had just been placed in the feed bunk. The long stem prairie hay and calf ration in the bunk caught the attention of several of the heifers as they traveled back into the pen, and before long many of the calves were lined up at the bunk finding breakfast.
As part of my regular cattle acclimation protocol, I followed this same routine every morning for five days. Each day the animals gained a greater level of confidence and a better understanding of life in their new home. When I entered the pen on Saturday (day 5), I knew that the cattle were acclimated.
They looked at me with curiosity and hesitated before agreeing to leave the home pen as if to ask “are you sure that I really have to leave?”
A good cattle caregiver can sense when a group of animals is settled and comfortable.
The natural energy to leave the home pen is less than the energy seen when the animals return to the home pen. In addition, the cattle travel down the alleyway and past a handler with confidence. Sometimes it is hard to attain this, but when it happens it is a thing of beautiful harmony.
I love it when a calf asks me a question. I love it even more when he accepts my response and offers an appropriate reaction.
The romantic in me smiles because I know that I have made a positive difference in the welfare of the calf. The pragmatic in me also smiles because my “job” as a cattle caregiver just got a lot simpler. That calf will now handle more easily, is less likely to get sick, and converts his feed more efficiently thereby reducing the environmental footprint of my beef.