When I was a kid, and then later when I had a stint as Minister of Agriculture in B.C., I experienced the concern of farmers about letting strangers into the barn at milking time. Cows had personal space and personality, after all.
Those of you who read this column will know that many of us are still having calves come and the phenomenon is the same.
Cows in a milking barn may get upset if a stranger comes in when they are supposed to be letting their milk down. Ranchers know this if they have to hand milk a cow when the calf is having a hard time latching on to mum’s teats.
If ever there was a case for needing a gentle cow (ever heard of the contented cow?) which will not hold her milk back for only the calf to drink, it is in a large beef herd where sometimes problems develop getting the calf started on the mum.
You might remember that cows like other mammals need to kickstart their immune system, but this has to be done with mum’s first milk or else you can buy a “starter” in a powdered form which can be mixed and fed to the calf.
Beef cows are generally not used to milking stalls, such as maternity pens that beef producers use for the occasional cow that won’t take the calf to nurse. They may fight a rope or take coaxing into the maternity pen. They can be persuaded or can be gentled with a treat of a little grain, or as we do often, pelletized alfalfa.
Now when the caregivers of calving cattle go to the calving ground the cows are not too wild especially if you have been the one feeding them hay on a routine basis. The fear level increases when strangers come onto the calving grounds.
We frequently have young children with us. They are counselled to not behave like wild coyotes, but rather disciplined good children/cowpeople. Good luck with that. They all want to touch the young calves.
No matter how often we suggest quiet, slow movements, unlike an attacking predator, the excitement is high and the noise also. We are still working on this challenge and this afternoon I will try again as one of the grandchildren’s cows had a calf yesterday and he is anxious to see his growing “herd.”
Will the message of “quiet is good” inform the child’s behaviour? “Don’t be like a coyote threatening a calf, yipping is not the type of coyote behaviour you want to mimic around cows.”
David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.