top of page

Training a Family Cow The Gentler Way

Spirit Grove Farm - by Tammy Marr

In respect to my fellow FarmHers I am compelled to preface this article by making a statement: I do things the way I do things based on my own research, beliefs, and spiritual journey.  For me, this is the right way–for you, it may not be.  I respect that.  If your way works for you and your animal, stick with it, sister! You will get no argument from me.  The sharing I do here is to be helpful only.  I  share in this blog my mistakes and triumphs in hopes that it will benefit others in some way.  If you take something from my sharing, it is a blessing to me.  If you can share something that may enrich my knowledge in some way or improve my practices, please do.  The following article is a sharing of my own ‘ hows ‘ & ‘ whys’  of training to the stanchion.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.


"I started out with farming with one key mandate in mind; if I could not attend the global well-being of my livestock I would be done with keeping animals.  I believe with conviction in the necessity of acknowledging the psychological and spiritual needs of an animal as well as their nutritional and housing requirements.

All creatures capable of thought have ‘ feelings ‘.  Period.  All beings capable of thought have preferences, desires, individual personalities, and psychological histories that make them ‘ who ‘ they are.  There have been extensive controlled studies on the matter by respected entities.  It has been found that across the plane of the animal kingdom, there exists a network of behaviors akin to human behaviors; nuances of emotions and cognition,  patterns and paradigms, social norms, and rules exist in the animal world that mimics our own.  If you doubt that, I challenge you to park yourself among a herd of cattle and just observe.

Cows are skittish by nature.  Let’s face it, although they are huge, potentially dangerous creatures, they really have few defenses when it comes down to it. They are subject to predators and are generally at our command.   They are afforded few choices in life under normal circumstances and are subject to the will of their keeper.  They know this. They are not dumb animals.

Cows are also creatures of habit.  They thrive on a strict routine and will line up in the same basic order for milking times and feed times.  They choose and flock to their favorite shade and resting areas.  They have individual preferences for troughs, barns, and hay rings.  They find comfort in doing things the same way on the same schedules every single day.  When there is upset to their routines or changes in their environment, it is very stressful and frightening to them.

Cows do not like confinement, spaces they cannot turn around in, or loud, sudden noises.  They do not like walking into dimly lit spaces or through small doors.  Seeing things that are out of place such as even a bucket they do not recognize makes them nervous.

Those simple facts being stated, imagine if you will that you are a cow who has just given birth.  Your farmer now asks you to leave your newborn baby and come into a room you have never been in, through what is basically a human-sized opening and is not very well lit.  Inside this room, you have heard strange, loud noises if there is a milk machine.  You have no idea what is about to happen to you.  You resist.  Of course.

Your farmer forces you in and locks your head in a strange contraption that you cannot escape from.  You can’t free yourself or back out. Then, she tries to take your baby’s nutrition from your udder. Your baby needs that! You resist some more.  You are being restrained and handled in the most personal and in your view, inappropriate ways. You are fighting against things you have never experienced in a strange room, locked in by your head and you’re scared and you don’t know even where your baby is or what is happening to him/her.  You’re probably a little angry too!

I have seen ” trained ” dairy cows that are absolutely horrified of the stanchion and must be manhandled to get them in, then restrained with all manner of devices just to get them milked; this is not psychologically, nor physically healthy.  

Temple Grandin suggests that one can tell how stressed a cow is by the number and tone of her moos; this is true.  If a cow is constantly mooing in a low distressed way or hollering and thrashing in the stanchion, on my farm that means that training is going badly and the session ends.  I instantly release her.  There is a vast difference between a cow working out in her mind what is going on with normal resistance and thrashing about in obvious duress– Normal stress is not long-lasting and/or violent; once the cow realizes no harm will come to her, she settles and you can move forward.  My rule of thumb is that there must be an obvious progression of acceptance–a minimizing of the displays of distress, if you will, for me to continue.

A commonly recommended resource for folks starting out with dairy cows is  ‘ Keeping a Family Cow ‘ by Joann S. Grohman.  It has become the Bible for homesteaders and small farmers starting a dairy herd or just having a single-family milk cow of their own.   While it is an invaluable resource and packed full of incredibly useful information and tips, I find many of her opinions in direct contradiction with my personal experiences and observations: ie..” Cows don’t like dogs.  They are natural enemies ” ( Chapter 3: A calm environment) I have multiple photos of my dogs lying in service of my cows as they give birth, protecting both the dam and her arriving calf, licking the face of the dam completely accepted as part of the process.  My cows will sleep next to my dogs and my dogs often sit in the parlor with me. I call my three Great Pyrenees ‘ The Cowboys ‘.

Again, it goes to personality, training, and preference–of the cow, the dog, the farmer.  A well-trained farm dog is a part of the herd, accepted by the cows.  If you have a cow who comes from a farm where dogs were allowed to nip at her heels in the process of herding, of course, she will dislike your dogs.  I have one such cow here.  After ten months of my redirection and training of her,  she no longer charges my Pyrenees, although she still regards them with suspicion and probably always will.  When one says ” cows don’t like dogs ”, it is akin to saying cats don’t like dogs; it may be the rule of the wild and commonplace on farms where dogs are permitted and/or encouraged to bite at the heels of a cow, but on a gentle & humane farm, a bovine is not wild, nor is a properly trained and respectful dog.

I disagree with some of Ms. Grohman’s methods when it comes to training as well.  She openly admits to and endorses scolding a cow who {misbehaves} in the stanchion by yelling at the cow and manhandling her: ” grab her leg and firmly pull it down ” ” I yell at her ”, which seems in direct contradiction to her stated practices elsewhere in her book of getting into the right mindset by ‘thinking positively’.  She also recommends such things in situations with cows that kick the bucket while in training as lashing their legs by going under the belly in front of the udder with ropes, reminding the reader that this is dangerous and the ropes must be loosened frequently so as not to damage the udder or disrupt circulation and tying the cow’s tail to her leg to prevent her smacking you with it if she insists on doing so ( Both found in Chapter 3: ‘Milking your Cow’ in the section devoted to ‘ kicking ‘ ).  I disagree with the practice or necessity of any of these suggestions.

To the matter of kicking, a kick stop device will prevent that without the great risk or stress of yelling, grabbing, tying, or pulling on your cow.  Ms. Grohman even recommends them and illustrates them.  I cannot fathom why she chose to include the dangerous and stressful options.  To the matter of tail flicking, that usually passes quickly: it’s part of the training process for the cow to use whatever means she has at her disposal to air her disapproval, although a bothersome fly now and again may get you an unexpected smack across the face.  It happens.  I wouldn’t tie my girl’s tail on the off chance it might.  As to yelling at my cows–I don’t do it, just like I don’t yell at my grandson.  It isn’t necessary to yell to correct a child and it isn’t necessary to yell to correct an animal who is restrained in a stanchion.  If a cow is barreling at me full speed and about to mow over me– heck yeah! I yell!

I  introduce my bovines in training to the parlor PRIOR to their calving.   I simply spend a couple of minutes each time I am in the parlor inviting them in for a small scoop of grain and getting them used to the goings-on.  Seriously, a couple of minutes.  It doesn’t have to be every time either.  I just make an effort when I can.  If they choose not to come in for the grain, I simply shut the door and leave.  Eventually, they come in.

Also, realize as you go through these steps, sometimes you will accomplish only one a day with a certain cow, while with others you will fly through several in the same day and then stall on one.  Each cow is different as is each human.  I do not pull my calves from their dams, so this affords me the time to work with them at leisure and not be hurried through training post-calving either.  Despite what is commonly believed, it is not necessary to fully milk out your first freshener heifer in the first 24 hours.  She will not get mastitis and it will not make her less of a producer to introduce her to milking more patiently if she retains her calf.  It can take a couple of days for her milk to even come in: In fact, licensed dairies are required to withhold milk from a freshening cow for 3-4 days to ensure it is free of colostrum residues.  

Sidenote: if your heifer/cow is suffering from edema or is a very heavy producer it is in her best interest for the sake of her health and comfort to milk her out as quickly as possible.  –If she is familiar with the stanchion and processes, this will be an easier task to accomplish within the first 24 hours even if you have never milked a cow before.

There have been extensive scientific studies done at reputable university programs which have proven that if a cow is under stress or discomfort ( physical or psychological), her productivity in the parlor suffers.  Her global comfort during the milking process from day one is in everyone’s best interest.

By the time my expectant heifers have calved, I have gone through all of the possible steps to familiarize them with the parlor; Coming in has become second nature to them.  I accomplish this in under 5 minutes a day within a couple of weeks  and as I stated, it doesn’t have to be every day.  Bringing a first freshener heifer in ‘ cold ‘is common practice and I did it myself when I first started with dairy cows, but as I grew as a keeper of cows I learned and as I learned, I changed my way of thinking.  I no longer practice ‘ cold training ‘ as a result of the things I have witnessed and feel unnecessary, unkind, and unproductive.

 I used to ascribe to the theory that since training without introduction was ‘ The Norm ‘ it was the best way and that since my bovines hung around and saw what was going on they would be somewhat familiar anyhow–then I realized, no matter how many times I watch a new, intimidating experience, it isn’t until I actually try it and learn the process that I become comfortable and I don’t usually want to be immersed in it all at once but introduced with respect to my ability to handle things.  I asked questions of professionals in every aspect of the field and I read every reputable resource and study I could find and developed a kinder, more gentle, respectful system that works for me and my cows.  Every single time.

Also See - Transitioning an Older Cow to "Family Cow"

Resources: (I could not possibly list all my resources for this model, but these are a solid few):

Understanding animal stress helps improve production efficiency (The Scientists tell me)  by Marilyn Brown

Keeping a family cow by Joann S. Grohman

Behavioral Principals of Livestock Handling by Temple Grandin

Animals Make us human by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin : How the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world by Sy Montgomery

Why and How to read a cow or bull: *( brief but good observation of bovine body language )*

Using behaviour to assess animal welfare ( MS Dawkins 2004 )

 The Behaviour of Cattle by  J. L. Albright

 Principles of Psychology by Marc Breedlove


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page