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If you're one of the estimated 4000 farmers starting out on your dairy career then handling stock may well be a new experience. Even experienced stockpeople are always learning about their animals so they can try out new animal husbandry techniques and pass them on to others.

Our industry is held in high regard for the decades of hard work by New Zealand dairy farmers who have emphasised good animal husbandry in their day-to-day activities.

No doubt if you are new to dairy farming you will pick up many tips and tricks from experienced hands on the farm.

If you are an experienced hand and you're charged with teaching new staff then you may find the information in this section useful.

Either way, if you want to know more about the science behind good stockmanship and the resources available to help you and others on the farm then read on.

The science behind good stockmanship

by Jenny Jago, DairyNZ senior scientist

Good stock handling skills are essential for all people working on dairy farms and are critical for successful animal management.

Dairy cows have close daily contact with people. The nature and frequency of this contact affects the way cows behave and their productivity.

If the interactions are positive, cows become easier to handle because they are less afraid of people. If the interactions are negative, fear responses increase, handling becomes more difficult, and animal production, health and reproduction suffer.

Understand your cow

For efficient stockmanship, the interactions between humans and cows must be examined from the cow's perspective. Good stock people are able to empathise with the cow and, therefore, understand why cows behave the way they do in certain situations. Understanding this relationship between cow behaviour and how people act is vital to working with cattle successfully.

Cow vision

A cow's view of the world is different from a human's. Their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads, rather than facing forward. This means that they can see all around them (panoramic vision), but have blind spots at the front and rear. As a result, they can be easily spooked when people approach from these points.

For a comparison, imagine how spooked you would be if someone you didn't trust approached you from behind (your blind spot).

The position of their eyes also means that they have poor depth perception and, therefore, will baulk at shadows and lines on the ground.

Cow hearing

Cows have good hearing and respond positively when talked to in a calm voice. They don't like loud high-pitched noises. This is why noises from pumps and motors should be minimised, especially at milking.

Cumulative effects

The way a cow responds to a person will be a reflection of how that animal has been treated in the past; these effects are cumulative. There is evidence that cattle can discriminate between people. They do this using a mix of sight, smell and sound. For example, colour is a particularly strong cue and young calves will learn to discriminate people on the colour of their overalls. Knowing this, a good stockman should carry out aversive treatments in a different facility to the milking area and use different coloured overalls from those worn for routine milking.

Balance is important

On dairy farms not all interactions with people will be positive. For example, human-cow interactions during painful veterinary procedures are negative. Although these interactions will be few for most cows, the number of positive interactions must outweigh the negative. It is important, therefore, to take every opportunity to interact positively with the animal. In addition, the impact of the negative procedures can be minimised through better planning, well lit areas, minimising noise, etc.

Cow learning

Cows have an impressive ability to learn. Recent studies indicate that cows can learn to discriminate between coloured shapes and use these cues to navigate their way through a maze.

Cows' learning abilities are utilised in automatic milking systems, where cows physically operate a series of gates and laneways on their own to get milked. Similarly, many farmers use timed gate release devices to "call" cows in to a feeding area before milking.

Good stock people like to spend time with young calves. As well as the enjoyment factor, this interaction has a long-term benefit for the relationship between those animals and people.

Danish research indicated that calves are particularly sensitive to interactions with people in the first five days after birth. The best response occurred when the person handles the calves during feeding. There is some evidence that another 'sensitive period' occurs in heifers soon after calving.

The cumulative effects of interactions between cows and people are most obvious during milking as this is the time of most regular and close contact with cows.

The best stock handlers are confident, calm and consistent and often use verbal encouragement and body position relative to the cow to move cows in and through the dairy. They are working with the learning abilities of cows to get the job done efficiently.