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Teaching Calves About People

July 17, 2022

On the second day of the Learning Networks Foundation summer day camp at Miles Smith Farm, all campers were assigned a Scottish Highlander calf. Lyle and Lochlan (front) are working with Poppy, and Max, Liam, Anne, Sadie, and Jack are working with their calves in the background. On the last day of the week-long camp, the kids showed off what they learned in a calf-handling competition.

The bellowing stopped as I walked across the barnyard. Thirteen calves watched me open the gate to let the mother cows into the holding pen, a space I think of as the nursery. As the cows entered, each calf ran to its mother and latched onto her udder. Soon, the air was filled with the slurping, sucking music of nursing calves. Well, it's music to a farmer, anyway. Why do we keep the mothers and babies separate? It's all about training the calves. 

It's far easier to train cattle when they are babies. Most of my calves are too young to be permanently separated from Mom, so the calves live together in the nursery. Then twice a day, I let their mothers join them for nursing. The calves stay healthy on their mothers' milk, but they become acclimated to people the rest of the time. Well, me anyway.

Calf Training

The good news is that the mother cows have already taught them a lot. They've learned about personal space, that hay and grass are for eating, and that love starts with licking. (The human substitute is brushing.) But the mothers can't teach them about human interaction. That's my job.

Each calf in the nursery is outfitted with a halter and an attached rope that drags behind. When I let the mothers into the nursery, sometimes a calf latches onto the wrong cow. When that happens, I'll take the halter rope and lead the calf to the correct udder. After a few sessions, the calves and cows figure out what to do, and the process is seamless. I call it the milking-of-the-cows without the hassle.

Why do I make an effort to do this?

Because a halter-trained calf grows up to be a safe and friendly adult bovine. Besides, working with the babies is fun.

Each calf has a personality. Buttercup will readily sniff my hair when I lean down. That's something that a curious calf will do when it feels safe. It's a sign of acceptance. However, Buttercup's sister Butterscotch is warier. After working with her for three days, she tried to escape when I took hold of her rope. Hair sniffing is not on her agenda. 

Summer Camp

Successful halter training takes patience and much walking among the babies to convince them I'm not to be feared. This year most calves changed from leaping, bawling bundles of energy to head-sniffing, friendly calves that look forward to their daily grain ration. All have come around, except Butterscotch, and even she is learning. The other day she took two steps while I tugged on her lead rope.

Now I have a lot of young calf trainers, thanks to our summer day camp. All of the campers are assigned calves to train. I wonder who will learn more –- the calves or the kids? I'll tell you all about it next week.


Carole Soule

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