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Cow’s 'formal' education comes from her herd

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One of the most impressive sights at my dairy is inside the milking parlor, where twin 80-stall carousels go round and round and round. And, standing contently in each stall, is a cow, gently being milked.

Rosendale Dairy hosts thousands of guests each year, and on virtually every one of those tours, someone watches this amazing scene and asks us, “How do you train the cows to get onto the carousel?”

It’s a great question because answering it can sum up a lot about a cow’s entire life. There’s a whole lot more to it than just teaching a cow to take that single step. Each phase in a cow’s development — including her care and upbringing — guide her toward a successful milking career. Just consider …

In the beginning: Very quickly after birth, we place our calves into individual homes that we call “hutches.” This will be the only time in her life when a cow won’t be directly cohabitating with her sisters, and the reason is very important: To protect her from the spread of disease (Cows are not born with the same immunities as we are. They need time for their defenses to build up.). This protection, in fact, is very similar to the reasons hospitals place newborn humans into bassinets: Regardless of species, we want to give our youngest — whether cows or humans — the best shot at a healthy start.

We do try to place the hutches close enough to one another, however, that each occupant can begin to feel a herd connection even as we minimize harmful direct contact.

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Building a clique: Think about your own experiences traveling from childhood through high school. In a lot of ways, the social aspects of that journey reflect what dairy cows experience during their early years.

When you started kindergarten, for instance, you were placed with a smaller group of similarly aged youngsters in a class. We basically do the same thing when we move our calves from hutches to their very first pack barn with eight to 12 of their farm sisters.

As you moved through higher grades (elementary to middle to high schools), class sizes tended to get larger and cliques — the jocks, the brains, the cheerleaders, the tomboys, etc. — began to develop. You had a social circle and, within that circle, probably a pecking order.

That’s very similar to what a cow will experience: As her herd grows in size, a cow will find her “clique” as well as her place within that group. Even in a herd of 300-plus animals, the sub-groups will coexist amicably — as long as conformity and social structure are not challenged. “It’s exactly like high school,” says my colleague Clay Reese, herd management specialist for Milk Source. “We minimize group changes and try to keep them together … our goal is to keep stress to a minimum.”

Graduation Day: Think about how you learned when you reached college or got a first job. In a university, you may have had a teacher’s assistant or residential hall leader — a fellow student with more experience whose role it was to help guide you. In a workplace, you may have had an assistant manager, who took you under his or her wing as you got used to your surroundings.

When a cow is at her milking age, we don’t just expect her to climb onto a milking carousel. We want to provide her with bovine mentors who can ease her through the transition. “An experienced herd guides in a less-experienced herd,” Reese explains. “We give them role models from animals accustomed to the parlor.”

A lifetime of experiences goes into a cow walking onto the milking carousel. And while it’s my team’s job to care for and protect her, a cow’s “formal” education comes mainly from her herd sisterhood. Many steps lead to that single step.

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