Observations in Cattle Behaviour Through The Years
By Anton Coaker
Anton Coaker in his own words ‘ekes out a meagre living farming and sawmilling in the rain on Dartmoor’. He breeds hardy Blackface sheep, Dartmoor ponies, Belts, Whites and Riggit Galloways. He also has many other strings to his bow, the oak beam production at his sawmill, the sale of hide rugs and local granite and his safer sidestep into writing and public speaking. A couple of his articles outlining observations over the years put a different and humerous slant to handling Galloway Cattle.
Over the years, I’ve subjected various youngsters to a cack handed form of OJT (‘on job training’) in cattle handling. The jocular reference, in house, is to the ‘bovine assertion’ skill levels achieved. We’ve seen every level of competence attained in a skill that’s hard to explain, and rarely really mastered. In fact, for the benefit of trying to formalise these things, we’ve now quantified the system humorously applied to operatives hereabouts. I’m sure you’ll find it instructive.
Bovine assertion, Grade one
This degree of competence is outlined by the ability to hold a stick and wave it, recognise a docile old Beltie as a cow and make her walk along in front of you. An alternative measure would be the ability to stand in a gap, preventing cattle from escaping through it. Most individuals can usually attain grade one without too much instruction.
I regret to admit that I once failed to ever bring a certain employee up to this level despite lengthy and careful tuition. In my defence, the individual could hardly count to three twice and get the same answer. He no longer works with livestock
A ‘grade two bullock handler’ is likely of urban upbringing, but has learnt, after gentle reminding, to use his voice when he is driving the ‘litmus paper’ docile old Belted cow. When she turns her head, he will know to raise the stick as well as his voice. A ‘grade two’ may not manage to stop her if she walks at him, or likewise stop the group of yearlings advancing at the gap he is blocking.
We can now start to introduce trickier elements, safe in the assumption that operatives with this grade of skill will actually come in handy. I would expect a grade three handler to be able to notice his charges are starting to turn their heads, and be able to do something about it. If I were happy with the animal, I would allow a grade three to occasionally handle a particularly dopey bull. (This is a touchy subject, as the dopiest bull ever will soon pick up when his handler is incompetent/scared. I’ve known real softies become stroppy when left with a grade three handler for any length of time – in fact, I’ve known owners of bulls only manage a grade three level themselves, but we won’t talk about that.
Grade three should include the ability to look at a group of 10-15 cows and notice if one of them is dead/actually calving/walking on 3 legs. Never rely on this assessment though.
We’re starting to get into realms difficult to achieve from a late start now. Grade four bovine assertion skills include being able to spot the individual in the group who is going to turn the rest, and get a stick across its nose before it upsets the apple cart. Equally, you might expect a ‘grade 4’ to handle the bull often, (without ‘Brutus’ ever realising that he out weighs his handler by about a tonne), or cast his eye over 40-50 cows and spot the one off on its own/with a festering wound/actually missing. It isn’t safe to rely on this inspection either, but hey! you can’t be everywhere.
A ‘grade four’ qualification is, I’m afraid, as high as you’re likely to achieve from an adult/urban start. Take comfort that many a full time farmers who would struggle to better this degree of skill – including, I fear, your scribe.
Due to the esoteric nature of the calibre of grade five cattle handling, a system of merit stars can be awarded on top of this grade. The higher skill levels vary due to circumstance, becoming extremely specialised in each sphere of operation. The finer points of managing milch cows are inevitably different to that of handling semi-feral hill cows grazing vast expanses of peat moorland, and both differ from handling large numbers of young fattening bulls.
We’ll explore the basic grade five requirements, as an indication of the incredible level of intuitive feeling and understanding expected at this level. (Remember, very few people are qualified to judge grade 5.)
A grade five operative has almost certainly been amongst bovines all of his or her life –and I have known several females quite worthy of a grade five qualification-. They likely absorbed their knowledge subconsciously from when they could walk, at father or granfers knee. They would generally have been passable grade 2 cattlemen by the time they started school, and level 3 going on 4 by the time they were in secondary education. Going to agri-college will have had little impact on their proficiency; many have had no further education. By adulthood, they will have mastered ethereal skills that the unenlightened can scarcely grasp. They’re never silent in the immediate presence of cattle, but rather murmur to them all the while, identifying the difficult individuals in any group By habit they will ensure they don’t get left with ‘old grumpy’ in the collecting pen, but rather insisted she went on down the race before she even thought to get arsey. The bull’s ears quickly droop when he is in the presence of a grade 5 handler, knowing he’s subordinate but safe. A grade 5 stockman can be parachuted in to take charge of a stroppy youngster, and quickly reeducate it. While they are not necessarily on their own farms, they are seldom at a loose end, as their abilities are known within a wide circle of potential employers. The attempted headhunting of ‘Fivers’ by the unscrupulous is not unknown.
The ability to notice husbandry problems at a glance is a given, although doing this whilst driving past a strange herd of cattle at 50mph is something hard for the uninitiated to grasp. Astonishingly, it is goes on none the less.
I recognise theses upper echelons of my profession, if only to aspire to them. I’ve known candidates for merit stars who display a deep affinity for cattle us mere mortals can barely imagine, and I salute them.
ARE THEY WILD?
It is a touchy subject to raise, but let’s look at temperament in the various types of Galloway cattle - Belted or otherwise- and handling them.
Prejudices abound outside the fold, which is pretty ironic given the number of fellow farmers who happily take their lives in their hands raising ‘foreign’ breeds.
We’ve all come across it haven’t we? The knowing nods and subtle suggestions that Galloways are difficult to handle. In the Westcountry, we’re told…. ‘Us don’t want any of they bliddy things, they’m wild as ‘awks!’ That legendary rural scribe R.W.F.Poole rudely suggests that you could tell a Galloway breeder because he’d always be looking over his shoulder. To be fair to Mr Poole, some of his earliest experiences with Galloways would’ve been during his first ‘Mastership’ here on Dartmoor. There were several herds in his ‘country’ which ran almost feral across miles of peat. TB and Brucella testing were still novel concepts, ear tagging an occasional inconvenience, and cattle seldom handled.
And this irrelevant snippet takes us to the first point. By the very nature of keeping Galloways out on wild country, utilising their self-reliance and hardy constitution, they are handled less than milch cows, which see the stockman twice a day. It’s inevitable that this makes a difference. It’s harder to identify whether the self-reliant traits we value are the result of careful breeding over the centuries, or are simply a sign of less interfering in the first place.
Certainly, if you read descriptions of the behaviour of the ‘Chillingham Wild Cattle’ you’ll recognise familiar traits, although there’s a difference between wild and nasty.
And as one old cattle man put it to me, he likes to see a cow a bit protective of her calf, because it meant she’d likely lick it clean, let it suckle, and generally look after it. Obviously, nowadays, with inspectors greatly excited about promptly attaching eartags to new calves, sometimes before their dams approve, this can be an issue. And I admit I’ve known the odd cow who’d only oblige with the aid of sedatives, a tranquiliser dart and a Taser.
But then, I also keep a herd of very quiet South Devons, and there’s even the odd one of them who’ll get fruity with a fresh calf, so it’s no good blaming Belts or Blacks.
More important than the breed is the way you talk to your cattle.
Before 2001, I was chasing headage payments and numbers, and we drove the cows from horseback. Since then, in the new world order, I’ve learned to lead them. Once trained to come when they’re called, life with hill cows is so much easier. And the value of having the yearlings away at grass ready to trot out the gate can hardly be overstated- By goodness I wish I’d learned the trick when I was a lad.
The key, however hairy and wide eyed the calves come in off the hill for weaning, is to get them quiet that first winter. Once housed, we bed up by hand rather than with a straw blower, so someone is going in amongst the beasts every day. Talking quietly to them and resting an occasional hand on them will soon start resolving behavioural issues. Avoid shouting at them, even if one kicks you – kick it back by all means, but don’t start shouting.
My late mother was a first class horsewoman, and if a youngster was giving her trouble, she’d leave it thirsty for a few hours, then come and offer it water from the bucket she held. The same is true of an especially difficult group of cattle -a little patience is a marvellous thing. (It has to be admitted, my mother had no patience whatsoever with anything on 2 legs, but that’s another matter). Continue this state of mind once cattle are turned out. Remember to take them some sweeties most times you see them at grass. Once they’ll come to you outdoors, make them follow a little further each time for a reward. I promise you, it’ll change your life.
Like Mother like Daughter?
Another myth is that bovine ‘anger management’ problems are largely an inheritable trait. In fact, it is often learned behaviour, which isn’t the same thing. Either way, if a calf is raised by a wild mother, it will likely be snotty itself. But, in the latter, the cycle can be broken.
This was apparent in a mob of black Galloways heifers I bought after FMD. They’d changed hands a couple of times, and been pushed around en route, and were especially difficult to handle - as bad as I’d ever had. The first crop of calves were so wild that I killed the lot, reasoning that life is short enough without perpetuating that sort of nonsense. But the cows were performing well, and quickly ‘leared’ to the hill, so I persevered. And sure enough, as the years went on, they grew quieter. By the 3rd or 4th crop of calves, the cows had calmed down noticeably, and their heifer calves could be got very quiet. The cumulative benefit of steady handling builds over time, and the outstanding pair of Riggit cows Alison Bunning shows in the Westcountry are, unbelievably, scions from that very line. One of them is just 1 generation removed, although you would never guess looking at the loafing dopey creatures that they are.
I suppose we’d better have a little talk about safety when handling cattle which aren’t as quiet as they might be. I realise that some of you might be new to keeping cattle, and wanting guidance.
As a general rule, be quiet but assertive with your cattle. If they’re used to having you in amongst them, they’ll be far more obliging when you ask them nicely to go down the race, and less likely to jump the rails when you insist. As mentioned, newly calved cows, especially of a breed closer to nature like the various Galloways, will have protective maternal instincts. I can’t instruct you how to tell when a cow is going to flip, although the flared nostrils pouring forth steam, and eyeballs out on stalks ought to be a giveaway. Other tell-tale signs might be pawing the ground or the smeared remains of a passing rambler.
Seriously –and given some of the very nasty injuries sustained over the years, it is a serious business- be aware that a newly calved cow might well suddenly become a very different beast at the drop of a hat. And that however many pies you ate over Christmas, she weighs a lot more than you do and can probably run faster to boot. Often, they might be fine immediately after parturition, but turn worse 2-3 hours later. If in doubt, leave her well alone. If you really need to get in close, keep a stick to hand, and don’t hesitate to give her a dap across the nose – apparently it releases endorphins, as well as reminding her you can bite. But, if you can’t move quicker than her, and she is giving you the warning signs, my best advice is to walk away.
Handling bulls is a different matter again, although I generally treat them no differently to a cow. The official HSE advice on the keeping of bulls is to pen them into something more akin to the elephant enclosure at the zoo, and regard them as dangerous animals. Sadly, in my own experience, very few bulls indeed deserve this treatment, and the one thing sure to make a bull nasty is to shut it away like that. Personally, I suspect that if you’re afraid of a bull, he’ll get to know it, and that’s when the problems start. And if you repeatedly have bulls become difficult, it’s not the beasts that are the problem. We’ve had bulls from people who’re convinced they’re nasty, but set them straight with no upsets. If a bull gets pushy at the feeder, I’ll punch him on the nose. When he’s being handled in the pens, and he turns, he gets a stick smartly across his snout. If you’re raising a youngster, and as he finds his feet, discovering he has strange urges, don’t hesitate to remind him who’s in charge while he’s still manageable. (Easier when he’s 350kgs than when he’s 800kgs.)
I should say that, of the scores of bulls I’ve known and handled over the years, the Galloways- be they Belts, Riggit, Black, White or Dun- have very seldom been a problem. In fact, bulls, cows or mobs of boisterous yearlings, they’ve been quieter than most. So don’t let anyone tell you Galloways are difficult cattle to handle. It’s a state of mind.
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"Anton Coaker ekes a meagre living farming and sawmilling in the rain on Dartmoor.
He’s never happier than when in amongst his cattle, reckoning they’re probably nicer company than most people. To pass the long winter evenings, he writes about his experiences, and life as seen through a poorass hill-farmer’s eyes."
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