Who’s Training Whom?

This was my latest essay for Colorado Central Magazine….bittersweet now that Little Luna is gone. My heart is still breaking. And I am still picking up the pieces.

My three girls, together again.

My three girls, together again.

Getting an animal to do what you want it to do isn’t always easy. I have trained dogs to guard livestock and to be a family fixture. I have trained horses over fences and am currently working on one from the ground on up. I have been trained by cats to open a door to let them out of the house and, five seconds later, to open a door to let them back into the house. (Let’s face it, cats are a lost cause.) I have successfully moved a cow from Point A to Point B, though I’m not placing any bets on my ability to replicate that act. Lets put it this way; if dogs are ‘easy’ and cats are ‘impossible’, that would make cows ‘challenging’ on the scale of trainability.

The first milk cow we ever had came to us towards the end of her lactation cycle. This was meant to give us a chance to learn how to milk a cow during the time when her milk production was tapering off. Having only ever milked goats before, we figured we would need the practice before the beast started throwing multiple gallons of milk at us every day for 9 months straight. We fretted over building a milk stanchion to contain said beast while we ignorantly pulled on her teats. After consulting with Google, we decided on a wooden, free-standing structure that counted on the cows own weight holding it in place as a headgate held her into place. We built it. It was awesome. We were pretty sure we were awesome. The cow…she wasn’t convinced. It seems we had overlooked one, small detail: getting the cow into the stanchion. Cow: 1, Us: 0. With a ballooning udder and an anxious cow staring us in the face, we decided to try something that we were 78% sure would get us maimed or killed. We threw a flake of hay on the ground in the pasture and milked her, freestanding. Her weight held the ground in place and the flake of alfalfa held her into place. We were no longer awesome. We were idiots. Cow: 2, Us: 0.

It didn’t take long after bringing home our first milk cow to decide that we wanted more milk cows. So, with our humility firmly checked and in place, we purchased another one. This time we went for an eight-month heifer, halter-trained, and pre-socialized. Our first cow, though not halter-trained, is a dream cow to milk and gentle to be around. So we figured we would start with a younger girl, and work with her to turn her into another dream cow. We kept her close by to work with her on being touched all over and continue her leading skills. Once she seemed to pass our tests with flying colors, we turned her out to the big pasture with lots of grass to go and do the things that cows do. That is, until we learned that one of the things that cows do is sneak out through the fencing and eat the neighbor’s lawn. Poop. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Good thing she’s halter trained,’ and heading out to bring her back into the paddock. Halter on: check. Leadline on: check. Cow moving: check….wait, what? No! After a few steps she decides that the grass is, in fact, greener on the other side, and that is where she would like to stay. So she stops…and lays down…and continues eating grass from her new, gravity-enforced position. So much for my well-trained cow. Cows: 3, Us: 0.

We clearly are gluttons for punishment, because our cow saga has not ended here. We decided to purchase one more milker, this time a young heifer calf who was coming out of a herd dispersal. She had no training and little socialization, but she came out of good stock and was very inexpensive. At this point, we liked the idea of starting from scratch and having a solid little herd of mostly well-mannered milk cows. So we brought her home and worked with her throughout the spring before turning her out with the other girls for summer grass. Knowing she will be bred this next summer, we decided to bring her home over the winter to do some more work before she gets significantly bigger. As a yearling, she is a good size to get her into a stanchion and start mock-milking her to give her a taste of what is to come. But first, we have to get her into a halter…and even prior to that, we have to cut her out of the herd and get her onto the trailer. We cut her out of the herd without much problem, but we are quickly realizing that an entire summer on pasture has lead her to grow slightly wary of us again. I was able to slip a training halter over her head and clip my leadline onto it. Usually, a training halter is effective in producing forward motion even if just a few steps at a time…but we were getting nothing. The part where she threw herself on the ground and pretended to have a seizure was especially fun. ‘Ummm, hello, Craigslist? Yes, I have a cow for sale.’ We decided to back the trailer up to her seeing as how her legs had decided to stop working and as she saw the trailer getting closer, she knew her plan was doomed and she jumped up immediately. Once the trailer stopped in front of us, I was able to utilize some of that forward motion to get her half-way onto the trailer. Then her legs stopped working, once again, and she collapsed half in, half out of the trailer. Cute. We managed to peel her off the back side of the trailer and get her standing again. I’m pretty sure I recall asking my husband if he couldn’t just pick her up and put her into the bleepin’ trailer. No? Okay then, round two. I tried to get a running start of forward momentum (read: three brief steps in quick succession) towards the trailer while my husband pushed from behind, and just as her legs started to crumple beneath her again, we managed to slinky all but one hoof onto the trailer. We moved the hoof and closed the door. Whew! (Break for rowdy victory dance followed by a quick check to see if anyone is watching us.) Do we have our work cut out for us? Absolutely. Is this cow possibly the biggest stinker of them all? Yep, but now that she’s actually on the trailer, she’s my stinker. Cows: 3.5, Us: 0.5 … I think we’re gaining on them.

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