From Our Farm to Your Table

Cows teach calves good behavior

Mon, 2018-09-24 20:00 -- Carole Soule

  Brittany's baby was small. Her white bull calf weighed only 45 pounds (half the weight of most Scottish Highlander calves), but he was walking and nursing within hours of birth. His mom keeps him clean and runs to him when he calls. They are a good mother/son pair.

    We like to leave each mother and calf together for six months. Sometimes, if the cow is doing poorly, we will wean a calf early, but we always give the calf plenty of mommy time. You'd be mistaken if you thought that instincts account for everything a calf needs to know. They need training from Mom; as well as from the herd. (Forget about Dad; he has other priorities.)

    Occasionally, a buyer will ask to take custody of a newborn calf (2 or 3 days old) to bottle-feed at home. It's a widespread belief that bottle-fed calves will bond with their humans and become gentle, easy-to-handle cattle. For sure, a calf raised by a human will bond with that human, but two problems argue against that practice.  

    The first problem is health. The stress of leaving his mother too early and the change in diet can cause “scours,” which is extreme diarrhea that can be deadly if not treated immediately.

    The second problem is behavior. Calves, like all babies, learn from their mothers and their community. (“It takes a village...”) Calves learn early-on to respect their elders. For instance, a calf would never head-butt an adult cow. Humans raising a calf must teach babies as an elder cow would. If that baby gets away with what seems like playful child antics, that baby could grow up to head-butt humans. I've been knocked down by a 1,000-pound “bottle-baby,” and it's not pleasant. Another bottle-baby, who is now a half-ton cow, will charge anyone except for the man who raised her.

    Babies also learn about “personal space” from the herd. Freddy was a year-old bottle-baby Holstein steer I bought from another farmer. Freddy loved humans and would walk inches from me, often pushing me, sometimes knocking me down. Our attempts to teach him to back off were unsuccessful.

    Besides, it's not necessary to bottle-feed a baby to raise a people-friendly calf. When I halter train my calves at 6 months, I quickly find out how well they learned their cow lessons. The gentle calves will treat me with the same respect they would their moms. I get to be a calf-mom without the traditional exertions of motherhood.

    Even older cattle can bond with humans. Stash, a gentle 3-year-old Highlander steer, learned quickly when I started training him. I'd much rather work with an older critter who has had mommy-basic-training than a bottle-baby whose character hasn't been adequately developed.

Bottle-Fed Calf named Lucky

    Of course, if the mom dies or rejects her calf, bottle-feeding is required to keep the baby alive, but we can't omit the socialization. Calves are not little people and should never be treated like children. They must learn to follow cow rules and regulations.

    Brittany and her calf are doing well and will winter together. Her milk will nourish him while the herd helps teach him proper behavior. Maybe in the spring, when I wean him, he'll be a well-educated little fellow that I can yoke up and train to pull loads. Time will tell. 

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