The Training Behind Life

I haven’t been able to do much of the work calving for the last few years. With small children underfoot getting out and working with the cattle can be difficult. The in depth things fell to my husband. Now the kids are getting big enough that they’re in school, I can leave them alone for a bit, or, very carefully, bring them along. Now I’ve also been doing more and more training with positive reinforcement.

Let me tell you all about the things I’ve had time to ponder while I while I stood hunched over under a cow trying to help the calf figure out how to eat. I hadn’t done this since I started clicker training and thinking about what was going on in terms of quadrants and conditioning.

I am a big believer in the behaviorists. They believed that we are simply the result of a lifetimes conditioning, of what has been reinforced or punished, and that there is no free choice only training. I don’t agree with that last part at all. The person or animal gets to decide what they find reinforcing. Every one and every thing has different things they find reinforcing. We also decide how we will react to punishment. What we do in the bad times is purely free choice, some gather their strength and do good. Others give into the darkness.

What does that have to do with cows? Lots. But mostly it’s a favorite topic of mine when it comes to people 😉

This cow had a calf. We don’t know what happened at the time of birth, we came in a few hours later. Something made her decide to leave the calf. Maybe it was as simple as she was hungry and would rather eat than get a newborn on its feet. Moms leave babies sometimes, human or bovine. What I was there to see were the triggers that were stacking when I went to bring her in. She didn’t want to leave the food. She didn’t want to leave the herd. She didn’t like being chased.

In order to lower the stress level and to keep triggers from stacking as much as I was able I brought a small herd along with her to keep her calm and worked them all as slow and easy as possible.

She still was way above threshold.

She chose to react to the unavoidable positive punishment, mental not physical, by getting mad. She was pawing and charging and willing to eat anything that came near. I can see and understand the triggers but I also wanted to save her calf. Calves need moms.

We turned the real mom cow out. She was mad and on the fight. Trying to eat us in other words. Surely you’ve seen the statistic that you are more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark? We didn’t need that to deal with while we worked with the calf.

There was a cow who had lost her calf and was claiming a different calf, along with another cow. I don’t know which was the real mom to the other calf, but both of these cows were really good moms. We needed one of those for this calf. We brought both cows in, plus the calf and any other cow standing near by. They were willing to go and we wanted to keep all of them as calm as possible.

Up in the corrals the cow with the strip of white above her nose went through the gate. That got her chose to be the other calves mom. The others went back out to their pen.

We ran the cow into the chute to hold her still so we could help the calf to nurse. This is where the hunching and thinking comes in. With the cow held still we were able to bring the calf to her and show it what it was supposed to be doing. Trying to guide her up next to the cow and show her where to put her head we were lumping things too much and she couldn’t grasp the concept.

So we took a step back and thin sliced it a little better. I milked some of her mom’s milk into a bottle and gave her the bottle. She could figure that out. Suck on the bottle, get the reward, thus reinforcing the bottle sucking. We were then able to change the criteria a little and put her back up to the cow and try to get her to nurse that.

It kind of worked. She was able to grasp that the reward still came even with a different location.

I inadvertently taught her to target my hand.

By pushing her nose into position and placing the teat into her mouth she learned to associate the food reward with my hand instead of the teat. A very interesting delving into creating positive associations and learning with positive reinforcement, but not very helpful in getting her to nurse.

If I stayed back out of the way though she would come away from the cow and try to nurse my legs, the chute, the cows leg, anything but what she was supposed to.

Somehow we needed to get her into position and take out the association with my hand. Cow are a lot harder to get food out of than a bottle. They move and kick and don’t move into position like a bottle does. If anyone has a magical method that works please let me know. We have never found one beside lots of time and hard work.

We kept at it. Trying to hold her there, keep from getting kicked, get her head and mouth into position, and keep her from sucking on my hand. My husband had come home from his day job early because he worries about me getting killed infer a cow trying to do this stuff. We took turns bent over reaching under her holding up a calf. She was getting it, nice warm milk is a strong reinforcer and she was trying.

Trying a little too hard sometimes.

Like with any powerful reinforcer it created lots of excitement and enthusiasm. Once calves have gotten a taste of it it often becomes even harder to get them to nurse. Where as before they are lethargic and unwilling, once they get the idea they start bouncing and slamming around.  Head butting their mom in the belly and legs as well as the udder. Unable to control themselves or understand that they need to hold still!

The biggest problem of all is changing the location. As anyone who has taught a horse something really good! In one spot. Only to move somewhere else and discover they have lost it all together. Just because the calf has learned to nurse, kind of, in the chute it doesn’t mean they will be able to once we let the cow out. Sometimes calves will learn that milk comes in the chute and never learn to nurse anywhere else. They are usually ones that the cow wont let nurse on her own. There is lots of strong positive punishment in the cow kicking and generally tossing the calf around when she is free to reach him. Positive punishment out of the chute, positive reinforcement in the chute, it’s easy to see how they learn that.

This calf hasn’t learned how to nurse out of the chute yet. She’s doing better in the chute but we are going to have to keep putting the mom in there a little bit longer until the calf gets it figured out. The cow is claiming the calf. Kicking it off isn’t a problem. Learning takes time even when laced with a dose of instinct. It is amazing to watch training occur in nature though.


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