Here again we have to recognize that livestock does not share our ability to use logic and reasoning in the same way we do. They aren’t capable of reaching a conclusion based on thinking things through a step by step process. It is more helpful to understand that they catalog experiences as good or bad in association with what is happening around them at that time and then relying on those past experiences as they seek a release from the stress that they experience.
Mr. Steve Cote does a great job of explaining to help us understand from a cow’s perspective why she exhibits behavior that may run counter to what we desire for her to do.
For some insight, let’s take a common situation on the range that I’ve seen hundreds of times and look at it from the cows point of view, based on some known traits.
An association rider who is striving to get more days from a grazing unit and meet riparian standards is under considerable pressure to keep the stock off riparian areas. He rides the riparian areas and moves any stock off the creek into the uplands.
While checking an area, he finds a cow bedded down with a few others near the water. He had just cleared this creek, but here they were right back.
Cattle need to see what is pressuring them, and they can’t see things directly behind them (but the rider doesn’t know that). He comes right in at the cow from directly behind, so she jumps up and turns so she can see him. He comes right at her head-on (where she can’t see him well either), so she spins and heads off at a trot away from him. Then she turns back in towards the willows to hide.
The rider jumps out and blocks to turn her back and shouts. She turns away from the willows and trots off. The rider trots up right behind her, so she runs off. Then he sics the dog on her for good measure to keep her going up the mountain.
He gathers the other cattle and drives them hard up the mountain, so it takes awhile for the cow to find her calf. She was pushed, then crowded and jammed during the drive up.
That afternoon the rider checks the creek, and she is right back where he found her before. Same spot exactly. Now the battle is on! Well, in some places this goes on all summer long.
Why would cattle do this?
The cow is seeking comfort and security. She associates it with both the place and the situation where she last experienced it. In returning to the creek, she is just being a cow. She went back to the place where she was comfortable before the rider stressed her. She was taught, due to the rider’s lack of knowledge, that getting up off her bed is rushed and uncomfortable.
He also taught her that “if you walk you get pressured, if you turn you get spun around, if you speed up you get pressured, if you slow down you still get pressured.” Every place she was driven she got unrelenting pressure or noise from someone she couldn’t see. She was bumped and crowded by other animals when driven and lost her calf.
The herd got stopped on the uplands, and she left the first chance she got to return to the spot where she last experienced some freedom from stress… She was just doing what she thought she should, finding safety, comfort, and freedom from stress where she had found it once before. (emphasis added)Cote, Steve. Stockmanship: A powerful tool for grazing lands management. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (pg. 11-12)
Understanding this principal not only helps prevent break backs and runaways, it can also be leveraged as a tool that works to our benefit (e.g. one of the principals that makes a Bud-box work).