Friday, January 11, 2008

Teaching A Calf To Lead

I feel it's a good idea to teach my calves to be led even though I never know where they are going to wind up. When a prospective buyer comes out to take a look and a previous calf he's looked at and my calf are equal in all other regards, it could be the deciding factor in the sale.

Now, admittedly, it's much easier for me to lead train than it would be for a larger operation. I'm sure they don't have the time and their sales volume is obviously going to be higher than mine. Currently I only have one cow and one bull, so you can see why there should be no excuse for me not to lead train my calves.

First of all I want to stress that I'm a total amateur. I'm not a professional trainer of anything and would never claim to be. Everything I've learned about raising sheep and cattle was self taught/learned, through books, or helpful hints from a vet, my daughter's 4-H leader, or people that I've bought or sold an animal to. I never had the experience of growing up on a farm or joining 4-H when I was a kid. I didn't even know what 4-H (or Future Farmers of America or any other such organization) was until my kids were in junior high.

You see, I grew up in a military family and consequently we moved frequently. So when we finally settled in California and I got married I knew my dream of owning a little farm had the possibility of materializing. My goal here is to help other beginners like myself make the learning process a little shorter and easier.

Anyway, to get back to the lesson. My first experience teaching an animal to lead was with horses. I had a mare that I bred about every four years and I used all the hints and tricks from a book about how to train horses. I used those same techniques to lead train my calves.

The cattle I have are Irish Dexter cattle. They aren't miniatures, but they are the smallest regular size breed of cattle. The average height is about 42" at the hip. When they are born they are about the size of a Labrador retriever. The first thing I do is put a halter on when the calf is about two days old. I found a nice "figure 8" halter that is actually made for goats (kids--baby goats), but it fits the newborn calf perfectly. Just make sure to check the halter at least weekly so it can be loosened as necessary.

I used to wait until the calf was weaned before I would start the actual leading process. But then a breeder friend from Nevada suggested starting when the calf was a couple of days old. Much easier to tug around 30 pounds of no brain calf than 100 pounds that has a mind of it's own. She was right and it's how I do it now. (Thanks, Debbie M.!)

First I get the calf separated from it's mom and dad and into a pen alone. If you know how to rope then you can catch it that way. I'm not so good with a lasso so I use my shepherd's crook to corner the calf and slowly creep up on it that way. I've found that if you are quiet and move slowly you will be less apt to freak the baby out and he will be more likely to stay put in a corner, thus making it easier to catch him.

Then I attach an 8 foot lead line to his halter. The first few times you will be actually dragging the little guy behind you. I like to pull (drag), stop for a second to see if he'll take a step, and repeat all the way around the pen. I do this in both directions. If you're like me you won't want to wear your good sneakers while you do this. Sturdy work boots are the recommended foot wear in the cow pen. You want to keep your lessons short. I always try to end each lesson on a positive note. At first the mother is running around the perimeter of the pen and the baby usually does much better going towards the mother. Then I will crouch down next to him and pat and rub him all over and tell him what a good boy he was. At first he continuously pulls back on the rope. The second he relaxes I will release him and open the gate so mom and baby can reunite. It's best if you can do the lessons every day. I'm a little on the lazy side so I do it more like every few days. So first it's tug, tug, tug, keeping the line taut, but giving the opportunity to allow him to loosen the pressure himself by taking a step on his own. When that happens, stop immediately and give lots of praise. Kind of like dog training.

When the calf starts getting bigger and harder to pull there are a few tricks you can do to make it easier. The first is to loop the end around his back side, keeping the snap attached to the halter. Now you tug the halter and if he doesn't step up apply pressure to the looped end. The first time you do this he may leap forward so be prepared.

I usually do this using both hands. I'm standing on the calf's left side (he's on my right). My right hand is holding the back end loop and my left hand is holding the part of the lead attached to the halter. In the picture below the rope is in the right position, but I'd be holding it with my right hand and have it a little more closed over his back. It's hard to take pictures with one hand while I'm doing something with the other. (Next time I'll bribe somebody to help me out with the demo.)

Another method is to snap the rope onto itself and have that loop going around the calf behind his shoulders, then coming through the front legs, then through the halter ring. The idea behind this method is when you pull on the rope it will put pressure on the calf. He's supposed to take a step forward to relieve the pressure. He'll have to follow the rope because it's through the halter ring (see picture below).

At first the calf may totally collapse like a spoiled child in the candy aisle at the grocery store. It's important to stay calm. Merely pick him back up and reposition the rope and continue. This particular calf is very smart. He already knows the early basics and I think he's caught on that when he takes a few steps without me tugging he will be released to rejoin his parents very soon. I can walk about 1/3 of the way around the pen without him or me pulling. He's still not crazy about me putting my hands all over him, but that helps for later on when they are big. After a while they get to liking when you scratch that spot on the neck, or that spot over the tail.

Once the calf has learned to lead half way decently I teach him to stay tied at the fence. This is a little easier since he should have learned not to pull against the rope. I'll tie him fairly short (less than 1 foot) to the fence. This is so if he suddenly bolts he won't snap his neck at the end of a long lead. I'll do the hands on routine, rubbing his body, head, neck, legs, etc. until he relaxes. He might have his head still stretched out a little, but if he relaxes I'll let the rope out a little. Eventually they catch on and realize it's not such a bad gig after all.

The interesting thing to me is that once they've been weaned, they seem to progress by leaps and bounds. They are no longer distracted by Mom and if they've learned to eat grain, then they learn to look forward to you giving them a treat when they are done with their lesson. They've learned from an early age to stay quiet and follow the lead and become much easier and safer to handle.


mt said...

Wonder if you could teach it to be a riding calf? Or better yet, a JUMPING calf? I remember how well you trained your mustang pony.

liz said...

hi! i have a murry grey hereford x hefier who is rising 1 yr old . she wear a halter and lead but im finding it hard to lead her . i trained her when she was 2months old and now i think that was to late to train her because now she doesnt lead . she kinda leads me . now im stuck and i dont no how to lead without useing food ive read all ur tips and tryed them out but shes too big .. so plz if u have any avice to give email me at lilly needs ur help!!

Kristina said...

Hi! I have a red angus heifer calf,I have got a halter on her, she wieghs about 460 pounds, Im just trying to teach her to lead

Anonymous said...

i just got 3 jersey milk cow heifers... i am 13 yrs old, and i need some advice training them.... a two year old.... a 5 month old... and a 4 month old

tina f. said...

The best advice I can give would be to handle the animal every single day. Some animals catch on really quick, and for some it takes a while. The younger you start the better, but for the older animals you definitely need to be more cautious, as they are bigger and stronger, and sometimes dumber! Also start petting and handling the udder area so they get used to that. I would also say join a 4-H club or whatever is comparable in your area if you can. And patience is important too. Good luck!