What is “Cow Sense”?

– Dr. Roy Burris, Beef Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

There was a time when almost everyone had animals – lots of animals! Folks grew up living with and understanding animals. They had to understand them. They rode horses, plowed with draft animals, hunted with dogs, milked a cow or two and generally co-existed with farm animals. People learned how to understand what an animal was thinking. If a horse has his ears laid back instead of pointing forward, he’s trying to tell you something. It’s important to be able to tell when a cow is agitated, too. Folks also chose horses that had “cow sense”. Their dogs had “cow sense”. Cattlemen had “cow sense”. What in the world is “cow sense”?

I would say that having and using cow sense can best be described as knowing how to get cattle to do what you want them to, with a minimum of stress on them – and you. As Dr. Temple Grandin has stated, you need to “think like a cow”. You also need to understand beef cattle’s natural tendencies. Some of those tendencies are:

First, cattle are gregarious which means that they have a strong herd instinct and prefer to stay in a group. If you are checking cattle, pause and look over the entire herd before doing anything else. Focus on the isolated animal(s). They are most likely the one that is calving or sick. When you are putting cattle through the chute, put them in as groups and don’t isolate one animal. Beware of the lone, isolated animal that becomes agitated. They intend to re-join the herd and may run over you to do it.

Cattle prefer to circle around the handler. That comes from their instinct that tells them they are being preyed upon when something/someone is circling around them. Picture a pack of wolves circling their prey.  That is how they may feel. However, if you are in their pasture, they prefer to surround or circle around you. That is one reason why we have circular cattle chutes that goes around the handler. You should also locate the working facility so that the cattle are turning back toward their “home” pasture. They will move better than trying to make them continue to go away from where they want to be. Cattle flow will be better if they think they are returning to their “home”.

Cattle like to follow the leader. Once the lead cow is moving the rest are likely to follow. When putting cows through the single-file chute, it is best if cows can only see the animal in front of them so that they will follow it. Try to keep the cattle moving one-after-another. In the old days, packing houses would use a “Judas goat” to lead cattle to slaughter. They like to follow the leader. Use that to your advantage.

Cattle have a flight (comfort) zone. When you approach an animal at some distance they may become uncomfortable and move away from you. In that case, you just got into their zone of comfort.  If you invade that space very suddenly they will likely run away from you. However, if you approach them slowly they will just continue to move away from you. Approach them at a 45º angle and they will move in a straight line. Don’t climb upon fences or jump into pens of cattle, either. That is a case of both exerting dominance and entering their flight zone too quickly. Stay on the ground and move slowly.

Use their point of balance when moving an animal or group of animals. An animal’s point of balance is its shoulder. Move in front of that and they will stop or turn to the opposite direction. Stay at about the 45º angle to the shoulder and they will proceed ahead. Similarly, a group of cows will move about the same way. We don’t position ourselves directly behind them because they can’t see you there and may just turn around to see what is applying pressure.

Cattle like to feel that what they are doing is their choice. Let them. You can combine cattle working with moving them to a new pasture. Or let them follow the feed truck instead of driving them. And let them think that they are returning to their pasture when they are moving through the chute. Work suckling calves first and then “let” the cows go through the chute to get to their calves.

Finally, cattle have good memories. Eliminate bad experiences in the corral. Perhaps, you put them through the chute a few times without catching their heads. Maybe pour-on for fly control as you move them to new pasture. Work them gently and evaluate their behavior. Eliminate those that are easily agitated, and focus your efforts on developing docile cattle.  Easy does it!