Handling Stress

The other day I had a phone conversation that went something like this:

My friend: "HOW WE DOING!? You got a little blue pill for that bull of yours? I don't think he can do it. He tries, but as soon as it comes out it just drops straight down toward the ground. I'm going to put my bull in too so my cows get bred."

Edmund: "Oh yeah? That's a bummer. Of course, put your bull in. You need your cows bred, can you leave my bull in a little longer? Maybe he'll pull it off once or twice".

Friend: "Sure, he can say a little while."

The back story here is that I sent our bull up the valley to a neighboring farm to breed a larger herd of cows. The plan was to purchase calves that he sired so we can be certain that they'll perform well under our management and finish easily on a grass only ration.

But the next day he called again and said, "I caught your bull. He needs to go because he can't breed and he's beating up on my bull." If a bull can't perform the one act that it is absolutely critical he muster for, then he needs to move on to the happy pastures in the sky.

This neighbor and his uncle manage cattle differently than I. They don't use electric fence. They have a  permanent "corral" built out of 8 foot tall mesh that is incapable of holding an agitated bovine, and they're much quicker to raise voices or otherwise frighten an animal to get it to move. By the time I arrived with the trailer my bull was on edge because he'd been separated from the cow herd for a few hours. We tried to run him in for a while but he balked every time he got close to the door. It really didn't help the situation that every time he got close to the trailer, "uncle" would rattle the gate and say, "come on, come on". I suppose that trick might work with highly habituated holsteins ("uncle" used to be a dairy farmer), but it clearly (to me) didn't make the bull we were working feel more comfortable about getting on board. Various arrangement of fences and gates were tried all to no avail. As time passed so did the equanimity with which the evening began - nobody did anything really stupid like swing at him or strike him. I'd have called it off and started over the next day if there was abuse involved, but there was a little tension in the air and I'm certain animals can read it on humans when we're not at our best. Another neighbor stopped by to "help". Four men pushing the bull back and forth in a small corral didn't put him into a calm state of mind, so he stepped through one of the rickety old gates and went out into the road.

Livestock outside their fences is a bad deal. A bull outside it's designated perimeter is badness squared. This particular sequence of badness went through several stages, from the "let's try to chase him back into the pasture with the cows," to "where did he go? Into those shrubs over there?" to "he's way around the other side of the field," to "it's getting dark," to "let's get the tranquilizer gun." So while I'd personally never resorted to tranquilizing one of my cows to make it go where I want, my neighbors apparently use it with some regularity. By the time he was drugged solidly enough to wrangle into the stock trailer there were 7 people involved, it was pitch black night (10:30), he'd sledded off a small ledge on his rotund belly, staggered about a hay field like a drunken sailor, and he still struggled so much we had to literally pull him in with a rope about his neck attached to a large tractor. I breathed a sigh of relief when I let him out at home where he could sleep off the drugs.

The above story is not how I aspire to handle my livestock. The series of missteps while trying to load him illustrates several points worth pondering, but the primary lesson, above all else, is that patience when working with animals goes a long, long way. When it came time for me to load him into the trailer again it took us about 45 minutes of human labor to get him onboard - a little longer than average around here, probably because of the traumatic previous loading experience a few weeks prior. All I had to do is gently persuade him into the trailer with a string of electric fence (turned off so I could hold it). He would rather not touch the wire to test whether or not it was on, so into the trailer he stepped.

-Edmund

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