In The Middle Of Things

The storm has passed. The sun is shinning. The wind has slowed, a little. Now the guys are out in the big tractors trying to dig their way in to feed cattle and clear the drive so we can get out again. The calves are stretched out on the soft warm hay sleeping in the sun. The horses stand hind leg cocked, heads hanging, as they rest and soak in the warmth. We made it through another one.
This one was long lived at two full days and colder than the last two have been. Still it was a spring storm so the snow was melting underneath as it came down. Icicles formed on everything, blowing sideways as they melted and froze.
We got somewhere around two feet of snow, more than the last one that gave us about a foot of heavy wet straight down snow that blanketed everything and provided good moisture because it didn’t all end up in drifts. Less than the big one that buried our whole world in.
My husband and I hiked out yesterday afternoon to check cows. I had tried to get out there on a fourwheeler but the lane was drifted full and there would be no getting down that without some serious digging. The drive back from the failed attempt was nearly impossible. Driving straight into the wind with snow striking like bullets to my face and eyes. Each pellet burned and stung making sight nearly impossible. I tried to steer by watching the tracks on the ground from the trip out. They were becoming almost invisible, covered already by blowing snow. A good example of the difference a windbreak makes.
Walking was preferable. We stayed next to the trees row, taking advantage of their shelter. The biggest drifts were avoidable. The ones that weren’t we waded through above our knees.
The cows looked mostly comfortable pressed against the drifts that were now forming windbreaks themselves. They ate or slept or called for calves that were too busy playing with friends to listen. No calves born that we could find, we are in a bit of a lull before the late calvers start. Cows will hold off in that weather, when they can. The wind was blocked but snow fell like mist around us.
Coming back we paused to listen to the birds singing in the trees and to say hi to Poppy.


The April Blizzard

This snow really could stop any time. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings.
I felt pretty good about things when I went to bed last night. The cows and calves were tucked up against the windbreak and it wasn’t too bad there out of the wind. I tucked the horses away in the barn but had doubts about the necessity. It was hardly snowing anymore. Surely the storm would have moved out by morning.
We woke this morning to howling wind and lots more snow.
I went out first thing and fed Blossom. I forced the horses out of the barn for awhile. They need to move around a little, get a big drink, just get outside even of the weather is bad. Their bale is well protected here, out of the wind. I just put them in the barn because they’re wimps and it makes me, and them, happy. My mom keeps telling e that Smoke is an inside sort of horse. He’s never had to be outside in bad weather before! I’m trying to keep it that way.
I walked out and checked the bunch of cows and calves here by the buildings. They have the old horse barn to go in. It is called the horse barn not because my horses will ever be near it, it’s falling down pretty bad and way to dangerous for them, but because it was once the barn at an old country school down the road from here for the kids to put their horses in after they rode to school. I wish there was enough of it left to fix up. I love its history.
The calves were mostly in there, dry and warm and happy. That made me happy. Their moms weren’t quite as happy. They can’t get in that barn. But they were still sheltered and had lots of hay to eat.
When my husband finally got in from feeding the big bunch I asked him how things were out there? He just looked at me and asked why even bother to ask? It was awful.
They had put bales of hay right up against the trees. The cows can keep their bellies full and stay warm eating that way. Then the calves will bed down in the hay as the cows pull the bale apart. It’s nice for them to have a warmer spot to lay than in the snow.
I walked out and took Poppy a big bag of cake. There is a barn open that the cows could get in if they would. Forcing cows into a sheltered spot is like trying to make a horse drink. Has anyone not heard that wonderful Paul Harvey Christmas special? About the farmer who doesn’t want to go to the Christmas service with his wife and kids? He stays home and ends up trying to get some freezing birds into the barn where they would be warm. Here it is if you haven’t I miss Paul Harvey. I often feel that way about cows. which I realize is not the point of this story, but still.
I can lead Poppy to it even if I can’t chase the others into it. I dumped her bag of cake in there. Now the staying part is her choice.


Getting Ready

Here we go again.
The snow from the last two has mostly melted, the ground was getting dry enough to ride and the weather warm. Of course it was time for more snow.
This isn’t late for us to be getting snow. It’s fairly common for us to get snow into May. One year we didn’t have a snow day on the last day of the year but only because you just can’t do that! As the superintendent at that time said. The ones this year aren’t rare occurrences, just impressive examples. These are bringing LOTS of snow.
We spent yesterday bringing cattle into the corrals, getting baby calves out of the pasture in hopes of only allowing them options to go lay in that have shelter. Mama cows will lay their babies out in the wide open then go eat. By penning them up we hope to prevent that. We moved the cattle, bulls, a handful of yearlings, and one pen of pairs that got stuck on this side of the water in the big blizzard and have just stayed separated, closer and into the best shelter we have. The horses got put up in the very front because they would end up in the barn anyway.
This morning we woke to ice. Ice a quarter inch thick on grass, cars, and fences. School was already canceled yesterday. We got to sleep in. It was still wet and drizzly when I went to feed Blossom. It wasn’t long before it changed to snow.
The horses are tucked away in the barn. The cattle are fed up well behind the windbreaks. Now we wait to see how much snow we get this time around. Hopefully we stick to the bottom end of the predictions, 5 to 10 inches is much easier to deal with than 15 to 20.



I had a chance to play with the horses, a couple of them at least, on a warm weekend day.
I went to the gate and called Rusty. Harvey came running while Rusty looked and thought about it. Rusty got really mad and came running, scattering horses before him, as I let Harvey out the gate. Guess he should have come faster.
The kids and their cousins were climbing and banging and raising quite the ruckus in the trees on one side and my husband was working on his school bus on the other. It was a scary sort of day.
We worked at liberty. There’s no need to hold a horse somewhere that scares them in order for them to overcome fear. That is more likely to make them afraid than to help them learn not to fear.
I let Harvey go when he couldn’t handle it anymore. Sometimes he would go a few steps. Sometimes much farther. I never made him come back.
In the end he did pretty good. We accomplish things between his spooks. I’m not interested in that in this video though. This one is all about him recovering from a spook and getting back to work.


First Ride, Smoke

We rode Smoke today!

Well, I didn’t. But the Boy Child did! That’s the important thing. The weather and time have not worked in our favor since Smoke got here.

I saddled them both and took Smoke out by himself first to make sure he and Rusty worked together. It was nice to turn Rusty loose and almost be able to keep up with Smokes walk. That horse can walk! Instead of being drug behind we were walking together. Smoke still took the lead on the way home. Both horses were hot after not being touched for so long. Full of energy and zippy. The walking race was on.

Then we came back for 8. I threw him on and we were off again. It worked pretty well, except the boy child wanted to help with the steering. We would be speeding along at the speed of light and Smoke would stop. I would rush to get Rusty stopped before we lost the rope only to look back and realize it had been requested. I tiny pull back on the reins in a snaffle had stopped the big energetic boy. I spent the whole time telling the human boy bot to do that! If he wanted to stop, or turn, he had to tell me first!

It didn’t work.

We all survived though. Somehow. Smoke and Rusty are too much alike, the two high whorled horses. Smoke isn’t a double whorl at least. That might make it better. They are both ON all the time. Ready to go, interested in everything, needing to be moving, and needing full attention. Add the boy child to that and they may kill me trying to deal with them all at the same time.

It was a good ride though. Hope we can get quite a few more of those in!


I have officially given up on training the calf, dubbed Blossom by my daughter, to nurse the replacement mother we were trying to get her on.

Just in case anyone is new to this story, Blossom was found a couple of days ago, newly born and nearly frozen. Her mom didn’t have any interest in her and Blossom couldn’t figure out how to nurse. I brought them both in and tried to help Blossom but her mom was on the fight. Mad and trying to get us if we got close. The mom got turned out and a quieter cow who had lost her calf was brought in.

The new cow was doing alright. Blossom wasn’t though. She still couldn’t figure out how to nurse unless the cow was in the chute. The cow hated being in the chute and would lay down when Blossom tried to nurse. I hated doing that to the cow and didn’t want to run her into the chute anymore if we didn’t absolutely have to.

I was trying everything I could think of to get the cow and calf together. This morning we took Blossom a bottle of milk replacer. She sucked it dry and was still looking for more. We hurried to get the cow back in with her, we had turned her into a different pen for our safety during the feeding, and gave her lots of food to eat so she would hold still for Blossom.

Blossom was actually looking for food, searching down the sides of the cow for her milk. It had worked. We managed to get everything just right to set Blossom up for success! She worked her way back and got right to the udder…

When the cow kicked her.

Blossom was completely discouraged and went back to lay down in the place she likes best, dejected and sad looking. I lost all sympathy for the cow. Around noon I would run her back into the chute and let Blossom get a full belly.

When I went back though Blossom was shivering. It had rained all night and although she has  “dry” place to lay dry is only less wet that the mud puddles really. Everything here is soaked. I would be really impressed by the flooding if it didn’t pale in comparison to the flooding in the east side of the state. She also had bloody scours (that’s diarrhea for non cow people) She was cold and hungry and there would be no more attempts to get her on the cow. Something else had to be done.

My darling husband helped me to figure out where we could put her that would be dry. The usual barn has a creek running through it and is ankle deep with water. Then he helped me haul her up there. We gave her another bottle of milk then left her warm and dry while we went to town for groceries and medicine. When we got back she happily sucked down her electrolytes.

I don’t know exactly what will happen now but I turned the cow back out though. She out with the calf she had been sharing with the other cow. Maybe they can raise that one happily together.


Training Plans

I am a trainer. It’s what I do and what I love. Everything I do is some how related, or I should say I manage to find some way to relate all of life to training and find a way to make a connection.

Once I realized that a calf learning to nurse is basic reward based training it opened up a whole new realization for me. If getting a calf to nurse is just training then we can apply training principles to it and teach the calf. There is no need for fighting and complaining that the calf is just stupid and wants to die. Some parts of that may be true but we can work with those limits.

In clicker training people often write down their goals, write down where they currently are, then make a plan, line out the steps between the two and how they plan to bridge the gap. A training plan to be exact. I have never been good at that. Not at sticking to the plan at least. Things come up along the way. What ever we happen to be training reacts in an unexpected way, new opportunities come up in the form of an offered behavior that is too good to pass up just because it wasn’t the original goal.

I usually fly by the seat of my pants and even with an end goal that stays the same our path getting there is long and twisty.

Today I made a training plan.

Is it a good one that will actually work? That remains to be seen. It isn’t a long complicated one. It’s only going one day out, one lesson long. Not entirely sure that even counts.

We took the calf a bottle today. I was going to run the poor cow back in the chute again but when I opened the gate to start she had a melt down. I couldn’t force her. The calf wont nurse out in the pen. She might stand for it but with anyone there watching she starts pawing and stomping and generally having a fit. The calf can’t get to her even if it is trying. I had hoped the bottle out in the pen would show the calf that she could eat there too. The calf was thrilled with her bottle and sucked it dry. Whether anything was learned is hard to say.

I should probably mention that the calf is a heifer calf. I thought I had seen bot parts. I was wrong. It is very much a girl. She was named Blossom tonight by the children that came along to help feed her. From now on I will call her that to make life easier.

After Blossom finished the bottle she really wanted more. She followed the kids around trying to suck on their coats or faces or anything she could reach. After watching that for a minute it occurred to me that making use of her whetted enthusiasm to get her working on the cow would be a good idea. I quickly chased them out and let the cow back in.

Blossom went to searching, all along the cows front leg  :/

The cow started pawing and stomping. And kicked Blossom when she got close. I left but not in time. Blossom was thoroughly discouraged.

So I made a plan. Tomorrow we will take her another bottle. After she finishes the bottle and is searching for more I’ll turn the cow back in. She’ll be upset about us and life in general but if I have her hay ready for her maybe it will distract her enough that she wont stand around and be mad about us? It’s not much of a plan but it’s the only thing I can think of.

Here’s a picture of the cutest calf ever to go with it. Just because it’s cute!


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.


Time Thief

I wanted to share the reason I didn’t get to play with any horses today.

We were feeding this morning and my father in law said there was a calf that didn’t look great. I didn’t worry a whole lot. we are usually concerned about completely different things so I thought that if he was a little worried I probably wouldn’t be. After we got done feeding I finally was able to get out through the cows. The calf was laying there alone. Brand new but with no cow anywhere near. I got off to look at him and his mouth was cold. That’s the quick way to take calves temperatures. Like feeling a child’s forehead gives you an idea, sticking you finger in a calf’s mouth will tell you if they’re cold. He was freezing.

I did a quick search for a cow who showed signs of recently giving birth. There was only one. I brought her over to the calf. She was not interested. I put the calf on the back of the 4wheeler, they really are easier to get calves on than a horse 😉 and brought him out around the water to the barn. Of course I couldn’t get to the barn through snow drifts so we stopped at the corrals and I found a nice dry pile of hay to lay him on to soak up some sunshine while I got his mom. His mom was no more interested in leaving the corrals than she had been in her calf.

I finally got her and a handful of other cows out and pushed them up the lane to the barn. Not all the way because there is a river and snow drifts. SO I parked the 4wheeler and walked them the rest of the way. The other cows sorted back easily and I left her in a small pen with her baby to walk the others back. Hoping that time in forced confinement would help her to remember she had a baby I went ahead and looked good through the rest of the herd to make sure there were no other problems. There weren’t.

Of course he hadn’t nursed by the time I got back. Instead she was on the opposite side of the pen and he was shivering violently. I went to get colostrum. By the time I got that down him it was time to pick up children at school. His mom could get to him, if she would, and he was in a dry spot, much warmer than he had been. When I stuck my finger in his  mouth it felt warm instead of cold.

We hurried home hoping to find him following her around, afraid to find him dead. He was alive but still laying there. I left them for the time being to go check cows.  There are a few, hopefully small, issues out in the corrals. One cow is wandering looking for her calf. I’ll give her time to look then go back and see if she found it. Done with that I got a bottle warmed for our calf. He took it enthusiastically and drained it too quickly. I put him back in a small pen with his mom in hopes that he will keep looking for something to finish filling his belly.

And now any time I would have had to work a horse is gone.

The general policy with calves is to try to get involved as little as possible. Usually we create more issues than we fix by interfering. Cows will reject calves that we bottle feed or take away from them for any length of time. Things that are easier in the short run are harder long term. Letting the mom raise the calf is always better, and easier, than raising a bottle calf. If she hasn’t let him nurse by morning I’ll run her in the chute and make her hold still for him to nurse. If they both do this a couple fo times they might get it figured out on their own. Hopefully.

Calves Everywhere

Poppy had her calf!
It’s another bull of course 🙄 Just because I would love to have a heifer from her all she’s ever had are bulls.
There have been four or five calves a day since the storm. Our heifer that I have been so worried about had her calf. She didn’t grow out as big as we had hoped and I was afraid she’d have trouble having it. She didn’t! And is doing a great time as a first time mom. We are very happy that they all waited. Good timing.
We’re all tired and sore after spending the last few days tromping through deep mud and snow. The weather is turning warm. The snow is melting fast. We have lots of standing, or running, water. No major flooding though. I got out and played with the horses a little. Rode Smoke! For the first time since he got here. I played with Hieldorf. It’s about time to start riding that horse too!
Things are getting back to normal.