By training cows to trail easily and calmly, ranchers can smooth the process of acclimating their calves to low-stress handling. Much like human children, calves begin learning how to behave early in life. Likewise, as children learn from their parents and teachers, calves learn from their dams and their handler — the rancher.
“If you want to raise well-behaved, manageable calves, train their mothers to be that way,” says Whit Hibbard, PhD. Hibbard is a fourth-generation Montana cattle and sheep rancher who has worked over several years to incorporate low-stress animal-handling methods on his family’s ranch, Sieben Live Stock Co., Adel, Mont.
“Calves learn how to behave, in part, by observing their dams and other cattle,” Hibbard says. “Hence, we can assume that calves will learn how to behave around their human handlers by emulating those they look to for guidance. Consequently, the better behaved and manageable the role models, the better behaved and manageable the calves. An underappreciated fact is that we train our cows, for better or worse, every time we handle them, and the cows are training their calves to trust or not to trust their handlers.”
Hibbard credits animal-handling expert Bud Williams with developing and teaching the techniques he uses. He also credits veterinarians Lynn Locatelli and Tom Noffsinger for continuing to teach the low-stress methods Williams developed.
“At our ranch, we used to handle our livestock in a strictly conventional manner, that is, using lots of pressure to force our animals into doing what we wanted,” Hibbard says. “Consequently, it was high stress. I call that our ‘pre-Bud’ days. ‘Post-Bud,’ our livestock handling changed radically, from being human-centered to livestock-centered, from physically oriented to psychologically oriented, from coercive to persuasive, hence low-stress.”
Hibbard says his field observations indicate the calves behave better and are more manageable post-Bud than pre-Bud, although actual data to support the claim would be difficult to measure.
Locatelli, who is based in New Mexico, says the first thing to recognize when working calves is that they are individual animals with a capability to learn and respond to humans. Their early experience with humans — positive or negative — will influence how they react later. From the first time ranchers handle calves, such as at tagging, calm treatment of the cow and the calf can help establish a process of low-stress management.