Training Cows

May 23, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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I am personally not enchanted with the idea of training horses because if one wants to use animal power in place of a tractor, I’m prejudiced in favor of cows or oxen. Cows and oxen, I believe and shall try to show, are better geared to the smaller homestead farm. This belief is based partly on psychology rather than technology — I do not have the proper temperament to work horses (especially to train them!) but I get along well with bovines. It so happens that my earliest recollections of fear come from three runaways involving horses — two I merely observed as a child, and one that I was the principal participant in. I have no romantic notions about horse farming. I have also been thrown from riding horses, one of which I was “breaking,” so I have a dim view of horseback riding as a sport. It almost always turns out to be a luxury only the rich can really afford, if anyone can…

Training Cows to Lead

It is not always necessary that a cow be trained to lead, but you will find that ability of great advantage, especially on the small homestead. Sometimes you have a field or lot not directly connected to the barn It is easier to lead the cow there and back rather than try to drive her — especially if the route is over a public road or past a garden. Or you may wish to lead your cow to the neighbors’ for breeding. The only way I think a cow or any animal can be trained to lead or do anything is to start when it is a young calf. But a mature cow is at least easier to train to lead than a mature horse, if the cow is one of the smaller breeds that is not much stronger than a man.

In addition to a halter, put a safety rope around her neck (a rope alone will do) and run the rope through the ring of the halter. Be sure the rope is tied with a knot that will not slip tighter as the cow pulls. The trick is to pull the cow’s head sideways against her flank when she gets rambunctious. You can keep her from exerting her full strength against you that way, perhaps going round and round in a circle until she begins to understand she must go where the rope beckons her. When she balks, don’t try to outmuscle her — you can’t. Pull her head sideways to get her moving again. If she absolutely refuses to move at all, tie her to a tree and let her stand still for a spell. A firm whack on the back (don’t overdo it) sometimes chases away mulishness in a hurry, as does a light prick with a pitchfork. But soon — by the third day of training at least — she’ll start following you on the lead rope. To help matters, take her over familiar ground, such as a path she has traveled routinely, during those training sessions. After training is complete, the safety rope is no longer necessary.

But you will have a far easier time training young calves to lead then you will cows. After they get used to the rope, you can even stake them out to graze, which will get them accustomed to obeying the rope, too.

Getting a Cow Used to Being Milked

If you wait until a cow freshens to start training her for milking, you will have a hard time of it for a few days. But if you have no choice, that is, if you hadn’t had a chance to train her when she was a calf, start milking her with her calf at her side, nursing at the same time.

When the cow kicks a few times, don’t give up and quit or the cow will think she has won the encounter. Stay in close to her flank where you are safer than if you try to stay far away and reach in. Milk with one hand and keep the other ready against her leg. If she moves the leg back, move your hand with it, so she never gets a good free swing going. If she lifts her leg, which is what she will normally do, hold your hand and arm against it, even pushing it back down. Hang in there. Don’t try to milk into a bucket at first. Just milk onto the ground. Her kicking and fidgeting around would likely upset the bucket anyway, or she’d put her foot in it despite your hand blocking the way.

If she gives you a vicious sideways kick, it sometimes helps to give her one good firm whack right back, but no more than one per kick. Fidgety little kicks should be tolerated. Yes, you’ll know the difference. The situation is made worse by the fact that the cow’s bag usually is swollen when she is first fresh, and it is sore. If you can maneuver the calf over on the most swollen teats and you milk the one or two the calf has already nursed, so much the better that first time or two. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that if you keep a cow fifteen years, you won’t have to “break” very many.

I’m dubious about devices cunning humans have made to outwit kicking cows. If you must resort to leg hobbles or the back clamps that press against and deactivate muscles and nerves that control the cow’s kicking mechanism, then it seems to me you have maybe won the battle but lost the war. When I was a kid we used leg hobbles on wayward cows. They would then jump up and down, both legs together, like a pile driver. Once I decided to fix an outlaw cow for good. I ran a rope tied to her one back leg around a solid post in the wall behind her and pulled her leg up off the ground. Standing on one leg, she could not possibly kick. With a triumphant air I sat down to milk in peace. The cow fell over on me.

The back clamps, usually called cattle controllers, really do work, I’m told, and may be of special use when a cow must be milked that has a badly cut teat.

My way of training a cow to milk is to start when she is a calf, periodically going through the motions of milking as she grows. She gets used to the idea long before she freshens, and milking goes smoothly from the start; rather smoothly anyway. Actually, it takes most of the first lactation to get the cow totally relaxed with milking. And the older the cow gets, the easier the job becomes. Eventually she will soon let her milk down for you as for her calf.

Some farmers try to “housebreak” cows by disciplining them from defecating in the milking stable. Big mistake. That’s the first thing a scared or nervous cow will do. The calmer she is about coming into the stable and leaving, the less chance of manure in the stable. If cows are lying down when you come to put them in the milking stable, don’t roust them up and run them in immediately. The first thing a cow wants to do after she has been lying down a while is defecate. Let her stand up and do so before walking her into the stable.


See also Gene’s Oxen Power for Family Farms

Gene Logsdon

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio. Gene is the author of numerous books and magazine articles on farm-related issues, and believes sustainable pastoral farming is the solution for our stressed agricultural system.

Tags: Food