Many of the people who work with dairy animals today did not grow up on farms and have had little to no exposure to farm animals until they were adults,” points out one of the industry’s leading experts on the subject of stockmanship. “Many of today’s farm workers do not have the early life experiences that give them an understanding of dairy animal behaviors,” he adds.
Indeed, we would all benefit from a better understanding of animal behavior, says Don Höglund, adjunct assistant professor at University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, principle at Dairystockmanship.com, and animal trainer.
What is stockmanship?
With no clear definition, dairy “stockmanship” is loosely defined as the interactions that occur between people and dairy cattle with the intention to create a positive experience for both.
“Every time you work with an animal, you influence them — good or bad,” says Jim Lewis, a dairy field specialist for Vita Plus in northwest Wisconsin. For several years, Lewis helped apply stockmanship research conducted by the University of Minnesota while he was the manager of the Transition Management Facility for Emerald-Baldwin Dairies in western Wisconsin. Now, he is able to teach stockmanship principles to others and share the benefits it has for both dairy animals and workers.
“It doesn’t matter what language a human speaks; animals can learn to associate certain behaviors with vocal commands, but it is our physical actions that are most important when influencing cow behavioral responses,” says Höglund.
Conditioning cattle to the herd, reducing escape behaviors, and ensuring the well-being of cattle should be an overarching goal of all dairy stock handling.
“When cattle encounter stressors, their heart rate can rise, respiration rate often increases, and normal biological functions can be altered,” explains Höglund. “It can take 20 to 30 minutes, or longer, for an animal to return to natural homeostasis, or normal physical patterns, after even a brief moment of excitement. One goal should be to reduce occurrences of escape behavior from occurring at all. In simpler terms, avoid startling cattle.”
Cows also share “biological signals” through the release of pheromones that they emit. “Also known as ectohormones,” Höglund explains, “pheromones allow animals to ‘chemically’ communicate with one another.” For example, Lewis says the first heifer to urinate in a newly commingled pen will set the tone for the rest of the pen. “She can spread chemical messages to her pen mates via the pheromones she releases.”