Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How protective is too protective?

As I grabbed the hind leg of a new calf, preparing to weigh, tag and vaccinate it, the cow came at me with a will. Bellowing and snorting, she drove her head into my midsection, flinging me back about 15 feet with the power of 1,000 lbs. of adrenaline-fueled protectiveness.

Her charge didn’t stop there, either. She came back at me, head down and bellowing, clearly intent on driving me away from her new baby. As she pushed me back I tried hard to stay upright, leaning forward into her charge with my feet in a wide stance, trading time and distance for balance, instinctively reverting to the old football tactic of being pushed but not controlled. There wasn’t much else I could do. The cow relented after her second rush, then stood there between the calf and I (and my pickup!), watching me closely for any further predatory moves toward her new charge.

Though I was startled by the suddenness, intensity and determination of the cow’s charge, and though it was a frightening experience, I knew that she was only moving me away from her calf; that she wasn’t intent on hurting me. I’ve experienced both, and there’s a big difference.

I wasn’t, however, really surprised at the cow’s behavior. She’d acted in a similar fashion when I tagged her very first calf last April. Similar in the sense that she’d pushed me away, though with much less force and authority. Last year I’d managed to hang on to the calf and flip it in the back of the pickup where I could finish my work in relative peace.

With last year’s experience as a gauge, I was forewarned and cautious this year. I’d be careful and alert as I approached the new pair, but I’d also be calm and confidant. Keeping your attitude and demeanor relaxed and non-threatening is key in practicing low stress cattle handling. Keeping emotions at bay is important, too. From a low stress perspective, the point of tagging at or near birth is to quickly get the pair through the stress of the tagging procedure. We’ve seen that these things pay dividends in healthier, better-performing calves on our ranch, so our low stress approach is one we’ll keep.

Often a cow will be somewhat aggressive in protecting her calf one year, then gradually relax over the next several years. Perhaps they “learn” that the threat isn’t as severe as it first appeared. Perhaps they begin to “understand” the tagging process as a normal state of affairs. Some cows, however, will always be quite aggressive. Researchers believe that aggressiveness is in part genetic predisposition, and in part learned behavior.

As I stood there in the bright sunshine the other morning, separated from my pickup and my tagging chore by a protective cow, I knew that time was on my side. I stood my ground quietly, neither making eye contact with the cow nor moving toward the calf or my pickup. Within a few minutes the calf began to move away and the cow followed. I returned to my pickup, carefully placed my tagging gear in the bed, then settled in to watch the pair. The calf nursed for a while, then lay down in the warm sunshine as the cow moved off a few feet to graze. It was all the opportunity I needed.

I quickly moved the pickup between the pair, calf on my side and cow on the other side. I jumped out, flipped the calf into the bed of the pickup, and hopped in the back myself. By the time the cow had moved around the pickup, both the calf and I were safely above the fray and I could get on with my job.

I quickly tagged, vaccinated, and weighed the calf, checked it for horn buds, then castrated it with an emasculating band. As I worked, the cow dashed around bellowing and carrying on. She acted like she wanted to climb into the pickup bed but couldn’t figure out how to do it. Once or twice she thumped the side of the pickup with her head, leaving shallow dents in the body work. Oh, well, it’s a working pickup.

Finished with my job, I lowered the calf to the ground where his exited mother checked him over carefully. Seeing that all was well, the cow led her newly decorated baby off over a rise, looking for a bit of peace and quiet.

By the next morning, the cow had lost much of her protective demeanor and was grazing several hundred yards away from her calf. She kept an eye on me as I drove through the herd checking cows and calves, but she didn’t seem overly concerned.

But now it’s decision time. With two strikes (literally) against her, can we afford to keep an overly-protective cow in our quiet, very low stress herd?

In the cow’s favor, she’s only been aggressively protective during the first 24-48 hours after birth. Otherwise, she’s quiet and easy to work with. She’s also an outstanding mother, having raised a fine heifer last year – one that we kept back as a replacement. Also, according to the research I’ve studied, temperament is only about 20 percent genetic and 80 percent learned behavior. Considering the circumstances of her first birth and first aggressive behavior, it’s fair to say that I “taught” her, at least to some extent, to be fiercely protective of her calf.

On the other hand, she represents a high level of risk to those who have to work with her during the perinatal period. Too much risk, in my opinion. She’s a great cow, but she’ll be an even better cow in a herd where delayed tagging is practiced.

So as things stand now, this cow will be going to town after weaning.

And next spring I’ll keep a very close eye on her daughter as she has her first calf. We’ll see how it goes.

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