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Calm cows = happy producing cows
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Calm cows = happy producing cows

BRILLION, Wis. – Travis Speirs says he likes calm and quiet at Shiloh Dairy. That’s where he, his family and about 40 employees tend to 2,300 milking cows as well as about the same number of young stock and dry cows.

Through training on reduced-energy animal handling they’ve “turned down” the noise, establishing a culture of safety and efficiency. New employees at the Brillion-area dairy farm recently received training about that culture from the Livestock Trust Institute. The organization was founded by Dr. Don Höglund, veterinarian, animal behaviorist and animal trainer. He’s working with associates to scale the training to farms throughout the country.

Brad and Ella Kauer are providing animal-handling training after having for the past three years used the Livestock Trust Institute’s program at their dairy farm, Merry Water Farm near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They recently helped train 12 new employees at Shiloh Dairy with the help of Miguel Viveros, a herdsman at Shiloh Dairy, and Roger Olson, a dairy-account manager at Zinpro. Liz Purvis, a bi-lingual training specialist for Grande Milk Marketing, provided translation services.

“We researched the validated science behind it,” Ella Kauer said of the program.

The program’s been shown to reduce injury to humans and animals by as much as 50 percent. Also it helps increase rolling herd averages by 243 pounds per cow per lactation cycle, she said. Studies were conducted at the University of Minnesota, Washington State University and the University of Pennsylvania-School of Veterinary Medicine.

The program is a skill-learning approach. Employees who receive the training generally are invested in, respected and empowered after the training, Kauer said.

“We had seen other programs but this one made an impact,” she said. “We were moved by the calming effect the training series had on everyone.”

Cow injuries at Merry Water Farm declined significantly after the team received training in animal handling, Brad Kauer said. The key is team members using the same techniques on a consistent basis.

Shiloh Dairy began using the training program for new employees about five years ago. The program consists of 20 modules, with two half-day training sessions held once per month during about a two-year period. Dairy producers or their herd managers are trained so they can train others. The training begins with young heifers in group pens and continues through each animal’s life cycle.

Trained heifers move more calmly when the time comes for them to begin entering the parlor, Viveros said.

“I think the training is worth the time as long as employees are willing to learn,” he said. “It can help make their jobs easier.”

Since instituting the program, cows at Shiloh Dairy let down milk an average 30 seconds earlier than before, Speirs said. In a 2,300-milking-cow herd with three-times-daily milking, that makes a big difference; it translates to efficiency.

“We have some of the calmest cows because of the way they’re raised and treated,” he said. “They’re comfortable around people.”

Safety is another key element of the training program. Employees at Shiloh Dairy were trained to first slowly walk the perimeter of a heifer pen and then walk in a zig-zag movement through the pen. That stimulates heifer senses and familiarizes them with the handler.

Each employee – with the help of a trainer – then learns how to separate one animal from the group. The employee gently pushes the animal’s side if necessary, guiding it away from the group. The employee is trained to not touch the animal’s head.

As the animal moves where the person wants it to move, that person is taught to take a few steps back. That reduces energy or stimulus on the animal, and serves as reinforcement for calm behavior. The exercise is repeated three consecutive days, conditioning the animal to learn, Höglund said.

“It’s called instrumental conditioning, a behavior-teaching theory,” he said.

The key is helping animals gain enough conditioning or learning to face away from handlers. That’s important because heifers will eventually be milked facing away from handlers. Animals also are generally faced away from people when receiving a veterinary treatment, artificial insemination, or being loaded or unloaded for transport.

Employees are instructed to start with their hands at their sides, then slowly bring their hands together to raise them in front of their bodies and over their heads, Höglund said. That attracts an animal’s visual attention; it prompts her to look up and move calmly.

“I’ve never been a fan of waving arms and whistling,” Speirs said. “It desensitizes animals.”

Those actions in addition to yelling raise excess energy, which one wants to avoid, Höglund said.

“Low-energy is the way to handle cattle,” he said. “It’s natural for animals and safe for people.”

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

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