Why do you train the cows?
With Maggie being just over 2,000 pounds and Willow just shy of 1,700 pounds, our cows are not small ladies! One of the ways that we work with these sizable animals safely is by training them to do behaviors that help us take care of them.
Training is also a fantastic way for keepers to create and maintain the important bonds between us and the animals we care for. The positive relationships we have built with Maggie and Willow over the years means we are able to view them up close, monitor their health and work closely with our veterinary team to administer treatments.
Having that trusting relationship helps make diagnostic exams and medical procedures easier, faster and less stressful, not only for the cows but also for our animal care team!
How do you train these behaviors?
With lots and lots of repetition, snacks, and trust! In any given training session, we use a combination of verbal cues, training tools and hand signals to communicate which behavior we are asking the cows to do. Whenever we train a new behavior, we take it slow and steady, moving at their pace.
All of the training that we do with the cows involves positive reinforcement, a type of operant conditioning where we pair a behavior with a reward.
Video | Holstein cow Magnolia touches her nose to a target, opens her mouth, backs up, holds in place, and presents her neck on her keeper's cues.
What are their rewards for participating?
The cows love receiving some of their favorite snacks as incentives for participating in training sessions. We call these ‘reinforcements.’ Usually, we use hay cubes (compressed bits of hay) as their reinforcements as it is one of their favorite foods. We try to use foods that are highly preferred by the cows so that the reward is worth it when they do a behavior!
The treat portion of the cows’ diet is a bonus. We still give them a variety of vegetables every day, including carrots, beets and sweet potatoes. They also get sweet feed, browse (branches with tender shoots and leaves), grain and hay cubes, even if they do not want to participate in a training session.
There are some days where the cows may choose not to participate in training. If they don’t want to participate, they don’t have to. They just get fewer treats that day. Those instances can be helpful indicators for keepers that a cow might be feeling unwell. We keep an extra watchful eye on them on those days, just in case!
Video | During a training session, Kids' Farm keeper Nikki Maticic asks Holstein cow Maggie to present her hoof for inspection.
What behaviors are Maggie and Willow learning?
The first behavior our cows learned was how to follow a target pole—a long, plastic dowel with a tennis ball on the end. When presented with this new, interesting object, they instinctively sniff to investigate what it is! When they touch their nose to the target, we let them know they have done the correct behavior by immediately offering them a favorite treat as reinforcement.
Establishing a positive association with the target pole allowed me to ask the cows to follow the target pole, including into a large chute that is stationed on the barn’s outdoor patio. The chute is incredibly important as it allows us to safely secure the cows for medical exams. By training them to enter the chute voluntarily, it gives Maggie and Willow the choice to participate in their own health care.
During our training sessions, I work on getting the cows comfortable with me and other keepers touching their ears, sides, tails, bellies, udders and legs. Another behavior we train our cows to do is lift their hooves so we can inspect them for any cracks or debris. Maggie and Willow have made excellent progress with this behavior!
After we do chute training, we work on their other behaviors, including, a ‘back up’ cue and opening their mouths voluntarily so we can get a good look at their teeth. Maggie and Willow are also working on targeting their noses to a keeper’s hand and presenting their necks for voluntary blood draws.