It’s been a long time since I posted about how we handle the house calf, and there are as many ways to train a calf, or not train as there are stars in the sky I think. So take all this with a grain of salt, this is what works for us, and makes milking go smoothly.
Why train you ask? Well, for us, because of the way we share the milk with the calf we need to be able to handle the calf for many months. For us to be able to do that safely, we have to be in control. Don’t tell Raylan, but at five weeks of age, he can already take off with us, he just doesn’t know it because we started training him early, like days old early. Never underestimate the strength of an animal, even a baby one. I’m not saying either that you can’t take a cow that has never been handled and spend some time getting them tame. You can, and many people like to channel their inner Disney fill in the blank whisperer mode and wow folks with their lion taming prowess. That’s not me. I’ve been trampled, pushed into a wall, and numerous other things by tame cattle over the years, so if I have to handle the calf a couple of times a day I like to just start them early, and keep things simple and safe and stress free. We do not train our beef calves to lead or anything like that because if we need to handle them we can use the corral. They are always with their moms, and learn about the corral as part of their training. If we ever need to restrain one of the beefers they go in the corral and we use a headgate. Apples and oranges.
To train the house calf we start out the first day with a simple baling twine “collar” just so we can guide the wobbly calf around, or catch them. At this point they are still with mama but you may need to act as a lactation consultant, and it’s handy to just be able to hold that twine collar and use it to steer the calf while you are gently guiding, and pushing forward or to the side on the rear.
In a couple of days the calf can graduate to a nylon dog collar that is a little more sturdy and doesn’t cut in if you have to grab the calf quickly. For the first few days they are acting on instinct and can startle at anything strange or new, or even get scared by their moms. The collar on the calf comes in handy. To adjust the fit, you can use a torch and heat a nail to melt more holes in the collar. We have several sizes because the calves grow so fast at this age.
Right now Raylan is already in a cattle collar, which has a bigger D-ring for clipping the lead rope on. Just a little detail like that makes daily handling so simple. We have several sizes of these and also a handmade leather one or two that we use.
Apologies for the blurry photos, camera phone, low light, moving calf. Sigh. The first order of business is teaching the calf to stand tied, this teaches the calf that they can’t just go anywhere they please. The sooner they learn this the easier it is. Sooner means the younger they are the better, three or four days of age is about right. Or you can plan on needing a very stout post. Tantrums will ensue, and you have to be present. Tie the calf to a sturdy post down low and with maybe about three feet of slack on the rope. Their first reaction is to pull back, they may fall over in a fit and act like they are gasping their last. We usually do this while we are cleaning the stall, and hopefully mom is out of sight. If the calf falls over, make him get up. I usually let them stand a few minutes pulling (make sure the snap is underneath their throat or they can choke) and then give them a touch or a shove on the butt to move them forward so they feel the release of pressure. It may take few times over a couple of days, but they soon realize if they step up on their own the aren’t feeling that pressure on their neck that they don’t like. The most important part of this is that once the calf thinks it can’t get away when it’s tethered this will transfer in their minds to just about every leading and tying scenario even when they are grown. That three feet is about all the slack they think they will have. Raylan may go straight up, or straight sideways in a burst of exuberance, but that’s it, a quick scolding and firm pull gets him back in line. Jane will once in a while try something funny, but hardly ever, and you usually know it’s coming and can be ready for it. And that’s all from her being handled and trained simple leading and tying at a young age.
The calf has to be restrained while I milk, so this is important to learn. Stand still and be quiet and you will get fed soon. Even if the calf nurses the cow instead of drinking from a bottle, the calf knows we are in charge of food. Don’t let anyone tell you cows are stupid. They are like big dogs, every move you make is training or untraining, they don’t miss a beat.
All of our stalls have these handy eyebolts for tying and cross tying. The eyebolt with a ring mounted with a bridge washer on the backside is very strong and good for securing calves and cows.
We keep our milking routine the same, we know what to expect, and the cow and calf know what to expect. In the morning the calf is led from his night stall to the milking area and tied, then we get the cow. While the cow is being milked the calf has to chill. After I milk, the calf nurses while the milk is processed. Even if I was bottle feeding the calf I still expect them to stand tied, and be led. It’s the same as basic obedience training for dogs.
I’m not a fan of leaving halters on any animal, they rub the hair off and are harder to fit a growing calf properly. I might caution that they could catch the halter on something and hurt themselves, but I’ve never seen that happen and it’s just as likely to happen with a collar too. The collar works good, fits for a longer time and it does come in handy if the calf is being a piss ant. To lead, a soft rope adjustable halter works the best. You just approach the calf, put the halter on, and set off to the barn. It really helps that the calf knows you are leading him to his food, his nice warm stall, or something good. Otherwise he has no incentive to do what you want. Relationship building is really important, we make sure that we don’t abuse the trust the calf or cow has. You want the cow or calf to come to you and allow you to put on their barn gear.
Soon the calf will be a large animal and with a little daily handling/training will remain tractable. All they need to know is what to expect from you, and a few basic commands. Just remember the main thing is to be firm and consistent.