The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Friends with Your Wild Heifer
by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT
Your dream of milking a family cow is predicated upon your relationship with that cow. Somewhere along the line you may find you’ve got a particularly independent or wary heifer to tame down. In terms of making your dream a reality, the more harmonious the better, I’m asking you to take the time to train this heifer long before calving, so that it can go smoothly for the two of you, so that feeding, handling, milking can be accomplished each day, she gets just what she needs, and so do you.
You and your heifer need to be friends. Regardless of how old this wild heifer is, there are ways to build that friendship through calm, clear and patient daily interaction which will contribute to achieving your goal – that you can, ultimately, approach this heifer in the field and get a halter on her while she stands calmly, and lead her away. Of course if the heifer is 10 weeks old it’s going to be a lot easier than if she is 20 months old, because she will be smaller than you. At 20 months, it’s another story, and if she’s two months away from freshening, you have only so much time before calving in which to calm her.
So let’s just say this is your first experience with cows, you’ve gone to your local dairy farm, purchased a beautiful bred heifer who is very skittish, has never had a rope on her, or been handled or led, and you’re making arrangements to bring her home. Let’s think this through in order that we anticipate and iron out the wrinkles before anything unfortunate occurs. First off, let’s not confuse enthusiasm for preparedness. It ought to be dawning on you at this point that you need to safely and securely convey this heifer to your farm and then you need to keep her confined until she begins to calm down enough that she knows she’s home, and she knows where she gets fed. Even in a 12 x 12 stall catching a wild heifer and trying to get a rope halter on her can be difficult, especially if your cow skills are non-existent. And keeping a cow tied in a stall is a bad idea, especially if she’s never in her life had a rope on her, and she is afraid. No, what I mean by confining her at this point is to get her into a stanchion.
The farmer gets her into a squeeze, or loading chute where she is held, facing toward the awaiting trailer. You hand him your rope halter and he puts it on her. This little observation illuminates the great strength and energy this heifer has so you think twice and ask the farmer to help you lead her into the trailer and then the two of you, one on either side of her head escort her, after a fashion, into the trailer, and tie her up pretty short, remembering to loop the end of the rope through your hitching knot so it doesn’t come undone on the trip home. Already you’re thinking of how you might shorten the distance from the trailer to her stanchion back at your place and whether the farmer might be willing to ride back there with you. You ask, he’s willing, and you take him up on it. Back home, the two of you get her out of the trailer, and, holding her back as best you can, make your way into the barn where a nicely bedded stanchion awaits her, with a bit of grain in the manger. Reluctant to put her head into the open stanchion, you may have to thread her halter rope through the stanchion and haul her in while someone pushes her from behind. Or if there’s a way to tie her at this moment with the rope through the stanchion to a secure point beyond the manger, for example, you can do that, but she’ll need to be tied short enough that she cannot back away from the stanchion opening at all. Another scoop of grain, let her smell it, pour it down. Eventually she’ll push her head through and you’ll click her in. Let her enjoy her grain, then as calmly and deftly as you can, remove the rope halter, speak softly, run your hand along her back, give the base of their tail a good scratch, assure her as best you can. Secure a bucket of water in the corner of her manger, throw in a couple of flakes of nice hay and stand back and let her settle in. She’s apt to tussle with the stanchion for a while but she’ll get over it. And it very well may take her some time before she figures out how to lie down, but she will. She’s got a lot to get used to. If you have another cow already, by all means bring her in and put her in the adjoining stanchion so they can get acquainted. This will help the heifer. However, carrying on with this imagined scenario, you have no other cow; this big beautiful wild heifer is your only one. It’s going to be completely up to you to assess the situation and figure out how to proceed.
The farmer says everything will be alright, you thank him, slip him an extra $20 and a banana bread and off he goes. It’s up to you now. You find you’re already dissolving your prejudice against the rigid and confining attributes of the stanchion and you are becoming grateful for it instead. Over the next few days you will come up with a plan to create a secure passageway for your heifer to go out to the enclosed barnyard and back to her stanchion to be fed. This might be a string of cow panels or gate panels 4’-5’ high creating a passage wide enough to turn around in, and with no possibility for knocking down, jumping over, or going anywhere else but in to the stanchion and out to the barnyard. Meanwhile she’s going to stay in the stanchion until a) she calms down a bit, and b) she accepts the stanchion and gets used to it, stops fighting it, and c) she associates you with care and feeding. It’s going to be a few days at the very least, perhaps a week. In the meantime you’re going to keep her clean, keep her well bedded and fed and watered, and you’re going to scratch her back every time you come in. Get a neck strap for her and slip it on. Scratch her between her ears. Be very careful around her back end. At this point she is quite likely to kick from fear.
When you’re ready to let her out, everything is thought through, bed the passage with some sawdust if she tears out of there which is more than likely. You don’t want her to fall and there’s very little traction on a smooth hard floor for a cow, especially a fast-moving, suddenly free, pent-up heifer. Put a feeding of hay out in the barnyard for her. Open her stanchion and stand back. Once she’s outside you may want to shut her out of the barn entirely for a few hours so she can acclimate and you can clean her stanchion thoroughly. Keep an eye on her. Feed her minimally outside right now because the next objective is to get her comfortable coming in and going out and wanting to come in to get fed. Stay completely out of her way when you do open the door to let her back in. The first several trips are apt to include some fast footwork on her part. Watch her go in and out, put grain in her manger and when she comes in for it, click her back into her stanchion. You’ll need to put temporary barriers on either side of the stanchion at this point so she can only get her head into her manger through the stanchion, and not beside it. You could nail a couple of boards temporarily on either side, just see to it that the stanchion still moves freely. If she can move freely from stanchion to barnyard and back again, chances are that by the end of the day she will have learned a lot and calmed down somewhat. Toward the end of the day, aim to have her back in her stanchion for the night. Keep up this routine for several more days. Now you will be eager for her to be out on pasture and that’s fine. Just remember that lush grass trumps grain and getting her attention when she’s up to her knees in grass is a whole new ball game entirely. If the two of you are making good progress you may want to go ahead and let her out on grass, but keep watering her in her stanchion so she has to keep coming in for that. And establish a pattern of holding her in overnight if it makes you more at ease, and letting her out for the daytime. In time she will calm down, be relaxed in her stanchion and comfortable with your close presence. Once in a while, when she is confined in her stanchion, practice putting her halter on and off.
If the truth be told, one day this cow will get into the garden making a big mess, stepping on baby lettuces and chewing on succulent cabbages. You need to do all you can before hand so when that day arrives you can calmly approach your cow, get her attention with a bucket of grain and maybe slip a halter on her and lead her back to the barn.
When she’s within a few weeks of calving, and she’s still quite wary, here’s another set-up that might be very helpful to you both: A stall in a quiet area of your barn, with a good amount of sunshine, at least 12’x12’ but it could be much bigger if you have the space.
By erecting a corner stanchion accessible from the outside so you can fill her manger with feed and entice her in, and click her in from the outside. Very handy. Don’t bother with a floor for her to stand on. Just keep the area clean and dry and well-bedded. With a set-up like this a wary heifer can calve here, get used to milking, and live here for as long as it takes to develop trust in you, with her calf by her side. See Small Farmer’s Journal Summer 2012 issue for more on calving and caring for mother and calf.
Please note: take care in choosing materials for this stall. Tubular gates work well. Cow panels are ok. If you are constructing it out of wood, always use 2×6’ or bigger, keep the lowest plank right down to the floor and keep the spacing very close, say 6” apart so the calf will not get its head stuck or somehow injure itself. If the stall feels too exposed either from wind or busy barn traffic you can stack straw bales just outside and build a protecting private wall that way.