Early experiences with humans help prepare calves for later events such as branding, vaccinations and weaning.
Early experiences with humans help prepare calves for later events such as branding, vaccinations and weaning.

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.

Texas A&M University Extension beef specialist Ron Gill, PhD, also believes earlier is better for training calves to accept handling. When tagging a newborn calf, he says, don’t let it run off. Teach it to accept restraint by holding it until it relaxes, then let it get up and return to its mother.

Kindergarten for calves

He also encourages ranchers to work young pairs. Get them up and drive them a short way, he says, so the calves learn to respond to you and to their mothers. Locatelli refers to this practice as “exercise pairing,” which involves practice drills in driving cow-calf pairs. When checking cow-calf pairs, she recommends riders use the opportunity to build trust and train the cattle to move easily. Rather than just riding around the pasture to check pairs, practice driving a pair in a straight line, teaching the cow and calf to move with or away from the driver at a relaxed pace. The practice, she says, does not require any additional time but achieves added benefits from the time spent checking pairs.

Gill also advises ranchers to practice controlling cattle movement while driving pairs or calves. Walking or riding parallel to them, in the same direction and matching their speed, tends to slow or stop their movement. Walking or riding against their movement tends to speed them up. By practicing at getting the group to move in the direction you want, at the speed you want and to stop when you want, you learn how to apply pressure properly and the cattle learn how to accept it.

At branding time, calves that have been taught to accept handling will be easier to sort, and calm handling at that time will minimize stress and excitement among the calves. After branding, release the calf slowly, allowing it to stand up and walk away. When turning a group of calves back out on pasture after branding, proceed calmly and control their movement, helping them pair up with their dams.

The results of these efforts should accumulate over time, and when the time comes to strip calves from their dams for branding or pre-weaning vaccinations, the process should be quiet and low-stress.

Locatelli stresses that calves learn incrementally. You wouldn’t expect a second-grade student to learn eighth-grade algebra, she says, but you teach them some basic math and build toward the more complex tasks.

The first time you drive pairs or calves, you might need to use the fence to keep them going in a straight line, and even then, they might not fully cooperate. But after a few days of practice, their response improves and you can walk them down the middle of the pasture or pen.

Hibbard says his cow herd calves in June on summer range, rather than in confined calving pastures, so his crew checks pairs only about once each week for older cows and daily for first-calf heifers. This limits his ability to practice as much early “exercise pairing” as he would like, but he concentrates on low-stress handling in the cow herd and with pairs later in the production cycle. His recommendations include:

• Always trail calves out “mothered-up,” so they learn that that’s what they’re supposed to do.
• Give calves a dry run through their facility before doing anything to them. Calmly walk them through the pens, alleys, across the scale, through the chute and open squeeze, which prepares them for future processing.
• Get calves comfortable with going past you, such as down an alley and through gates, both entering and exiting corrals.
• When checking pairs, go out with the attitude of working with your cattle, seeing what they need and responding accordingly, whether it’s taking them for a walk for exercise or taking them to water or fresh feed. In the process, you train them to handle well for you, instead of looking for sick calves, which teaches them nothing except to evade you and mask symptoms.

Again, Hibbard stresses that calf behavior begins with the cow. “Cows handled roughly, that learn to mistrust or fear their handlers, or that get all buzzed up in the corral and during processing , or don’t trail out well, or quit the bunch, will pass these behaviors on to their calves.”

Stockmanship study guide
For more information on low-stress animal handling, including access to videos showing handling techniques, visit these websites:

• Cattlexpressions.com
• Effectivestockmanship.com
• Ranchtv.org
• Stockmanshipjournal.com
• Stockmanship.com

In next month’s issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork, look for more information on low-stress management with a focus on weaning.