Free-range and suckler cow husbandry

“The handling of the animals has to be adjusted to the new situation”

by Heini Hofmann

With the changing forms of livestock farming also the handling of animals has changed. With the change from stanchion-tied stable to exercise-pen the image of the good Bess is forgotten. Dealing with the free runners has become more difficult, and exceptionally so in the semi-wild suckler cow herds.
This loss of domestication requires a new understanding, not least by hikers. For we observe with astonishment that the sum of serious accidents involving cattle has in recent years surpassed those with dogs.

Dwindling contact

The nostalgic, but sympathetic image of the farmer in intimate contact with each cow when hand milking her, calling her by her name, occasionally scratching her head, grooming her in the field on Sunday morning and finally at the end of her life making her way to the butchers easier with soothing words, belongs to the past. Today, daily contact with dairy cattle is limited to a few simple steps in the milking parlor, while feeding and herding out to the field or the exercise yard.
The situation is even more extreme in suckler cow husbandry, where the animals are permanently on the pasture without much human intervention. It goes without saying that such free-running mothers defending their calves are no longer the good little Bess.

Milk and suckler cows

It is to be supposed that the call for close-to-nature animal husbandry brought the dairy cow more freedom and mobility than she had in the stanchion-tied stable, individual care, however, is left behind. The currycomb has been replaced by the wheel brush. The situation is even more severe when it comes to suckler cow husbandry. This came up at the time when milk lakes and butter mountains enforced the reduction of the number of milk cows.
Nonetheless, cattle were still in demand in order to take advantage of the wide grasslands. Also more calves were needed in order to meet the rising demand for beef. But due to the decreasing number of cows, there were not enough calves. In order to escape this vicious circle, a new way of cattle husbandry (usually with foreign breeds) was introduced. Thus, the existing grassland was used without generating milk for commerce, and instead veal and beef were produced, for both of which there was a good market.

Little domestication is left

What then is a suckler cow as opposed to the traditional dairy cow? Actually it is the most natural thing on earth, namely a cow that is not milked and instead suckles her calf. After approximetely ten months this reaches a considerable weaning weight of 300 to 400 kilos and is now either slaughtered or fattened. This animal is the sales product resulting from suckler cow husbandry, which is work-extensive.
Suckler herds often spend the whole summer out at pasture or even on Alpine pastures, almost without human handling. It goes without saying that such free-running mothers defending their calves are no longer the good little Bess. As tameness is rapidly overcome by wildness if wildness is allowed, we now have the somehow schizophrenic situation concerning our productive lifestock, that domestication, which was painstakingly established over thousands of years and has led to a trustful relationship between man and animals, is now being minimized again with free-running cattle. This may become dangerous.

Risk of accidents

The result is as follows: indispensable interventions such as veterinary care, artificial insemination, load and transport or also the slaughter process are increasingly becoming dangerous Rodeo incidents in professional life, and may time and again lead to accidents, because semi-wild animals act according to their instinct in critical situations. No wonder hikers and recreational athlete unaccustomed to animals feel increasingly uneasy on mountain pastures.
The responsible bodies had to become active. So the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention in Agriculture (BUL) is speaking about a dilemma between animal welfare and the safety of hiking trails. Their umbrella organization distributes flyers. The Swiss Association of suckler husbandry, Suckler Cow Switzerland, to which 4,500 enterprises are connected, has taken up the problem and is discussing insurance issues. Agricultural training centers (formerly agricultural schools) have responded the most efficiently.

Through the use of body language

So what to do when faced with the dilemma of the transformation of once docile and manageable cattle into stubborn or even aggressive horn-weapon carriers? Simply put, we will have to adjust the way we deal with animals to the new situation. It would be incongruous, to give more freedom (and thus allow more ferocity) to the cattle for reasons of a modern concept of animal protection, and on the other hand to treat these animals in a rougher manner so as to compensate for that renewed ferocity, in order to protect the people handling them.
To resolve this issue, one turned back to a tried and tested method of conflict resolution: talking to each other. This cannot only be achieved through speech, but – because animals are much more receptible to this – also much more efficiently through the use of body language. And because horse keepers have perfected this method as horse whisperers, it was the obvious choice for the herdsmen to look to them for advice. That’s how the new species of bull whisperers was born.

Boom of bull whisperers

As is true for a lot of situations in life, every innovation needs its pioneer. In this case, Grisonian Armon Fliri, master farmer (and qualified forest warden), former head of the ETH testing institute, who today takes care of a herd of suckler cows at “Gut Sonnenberg” in Unterengstringen, successfully adapted Monty Roberts’ genius idea of a horse language for cattle.
At the same time, agricultural teacher Carl Brandenburger at the Plantahof in Landquart was regularly faced with the uncomfortable task of annually having to tame a dozen bulls for scholastic bull breeding operations, which sometimes turned out to be quite dangerous. So why not invite the bull whispering pioneer and develop a practical seminar for livestock owners? Success and demand, nationally as well as internationally, were so high that a course programme was institutionalised.

Differences between horse and cow

Of course, the Join-Up-Method that had originally been developed for horses had to be adapted for cattle, which are entirely different animals by nature. Admittedly, both animal species are herbivores and herd animals. However, a horse is an animal with a well-developed flight instinct and it mainly uses its legs. Its digestive tract is equipped with a small stomach and big intestines and designed to facilitate easy escape.
In contrast, the cow with its forehead weaponry (if as a farm animal it even still has this) is equipped primarily for defense and attack. Its digestive system with its voluminous rumina is not created for a strategy based on flight. Accordingly, horse and cow differ in their reactions to danger: cows face it, as they used to when attacked by wolves, while horses actively seek to avoid danger.

Some “cowsence”

Since the new forms of husbandry - without tethering and without intensive human contact – made the once domesticated farm animals (lat. domesticus = used to the house) revert to being partially wild cattle, the demand for more affable animals has gradually grown. Not only would these simplify the work, but they would also make it less dangerous. Besides, the quality of the beef of relaxed slaughter animals would increase, and that, together with the reduced risk of accidents, would definitely be an important economic factor!
So the bull whisperers’ goal is to enable farmers to lead their animals by their holster. However, this requires an enormous amount of time and an infinite amount of patience. The success depends on both animal and human as there are animals more receptive to the training than others and since not every livestock owner who wants to be a bull whisperer is equipped with enough “cowsence”, i.e. the ability to understand the animal. Often animals from different farms differ in what their bad behaviour consists of. Or, put differently: Like master, like cattle... But, if the taming process succeeds, both human and animal stand to profit!    •

(Translation Current Concerns)

Frequent cases in recent times

HH. In recent years, the meetings of an unfriendly nature between hikers and grazing animals in Switzerland, but also in neighbouring countries, have occured significantly more frequently. Examples: In Uznach SG a hornless suckler cow attacked a farmer’s wife and injured her fatally, when her newborn calf was taken from her and it was tried to separate her from the herd.
In the Muotathal in the Canton of Schwyz a woman was attacked by a mother cow with calf, and in the Austrian province of Salzburg a herd of cows chased a whole family and injured five people – one of which even had a heart attack. In several cases, dogs triggered the bovine attacks. So for example a 45 year-old hiker was attacked and fatally injured by 20 mother cows when she tried to cross a fenced pasture with her dog on an alp in the Stubai Valley in Tirol.
The Swiss Council for Accident Prevention in Agriculture (BUL) also notes an increase in incidents: For instance a couple was seriously injured when crossing a pasture with suckler cows and an elderly man was even killed by a bull on a pasture of this kind. BUL speaks of a dilemma between animal welfare and the safety of hiking paths, which has also stung their umbrella organization into action.
Also, the Swiss Association of suckler herd husbandry in Switzerland (“Mutterkuh Schweiz”), which has 4,500 such establishments connected to it, has repeatedly taken up the problems in its journal “The suckler cow” and also discussed insurance issues.
However, not only the cattle that has become less domesticated because of modern farming techniques are causing this new problem but also hikers and bikers who usually come from the agglomerations and have never had any manure on their sleeves, so that ever since their estrangement from the soil they have lost the knack of dealing with farm animals.
(Translation Current Concerns)

Tips for hikers

HH. In former times hikers and leisure sportspeople had hardly any problems with the familiar cattle. It has already got about that the red colour is not likely to be an aggression elicitor. For in cows there are only two instead of three types of cones within its retina: different from humans, but similar to most other mammal species; the receptor for red is missing. So Little Red Riding Hood does not have to fear anything!
However, due to the modified cattle husbandry hikers and sportspersons increasingly face unpleasant situations. In other words: animal welfare-demands that led to reciprocal domestication have been provoking protection measures for people...
So how should you act towards suckler-cows? A few tips:

  • Go around the pasture on existing routes when the herd is fenced. In free-ranging animals on mountain pastures call attention to yourself physically and by voice, but avoid too close approaching, especially towards the calves, as this provokes the defence instinct of the mother animals.
  • However, should you happen to face a crunch, you can defend yourself with the walking stick (which you advantageously carry with you in such a situation). Waving in most cases is already effective enough.
  • Dogs (especially if they do not act in obedience to an order) are best on a leash in order not to cause unnecessary troubles. However, if a critical approach happens unleash the dog immediately, otherwise you redouble the danger.

In short: show respect and reason instead of false courage and panic – and be aware of the fact that the human is the “intruder” on the pasture.