On the Rock Farm this winter we have a six month old calf that was a bit of a bonus when he was born. Unexpected, he was a delightful surprise that has grown into a healthy and strong steer of around 200kg.
He is now old enough to be weaned, and the (not so) Little Helper decided his school holiday project was to break the calf into halter. We did point out to him that whilst it was our responsibility to give him the best life we could, ultimately his purpose is to be processed into beef… We agreed that we wouldn’t do this on our place.
Having not broken a calf in before, we had to seriously consider our strategy. My young son decided he wanted to follow some of the principles he had seen in action at The Man From Snowy River Breaker’s Challenge over the past couple of years.
Whilst a horse is a different beast entirely from a calf, we really liked the way the horsemen harnessed the horse’s natural strengths and worked with them. We decided that we wanted to develop a relationship with the calf where the behaviour we wanted was easy for the calf to do, and the behaviour we didn’t was hard.
Lesson One: Consistency – your words have to match your actions
As you can’t use words, you have to be entirely focused on what your body language says to the calf, now named Moo. It really makes you think about what you are asking him to do. And when he doesn’t do what you want, it is usually because you have put your body, or your arms, or even your eyes in the wrong place.
It is an entirely pure response. You can’t hide anything. And your actions have to match your intentions. If you want him to turn towards you, you have to really think about what you are asking him to do. Remember you have to reward the behaviour you are seeking.
Lesson Two – Assertive, not aggressive
You must be assertive and assume to role of leader of his herd. It is essential for your safety with a calf that weighs 200kg and is immensely strong. We were very keen for Moo to turn towards us instead of away from us. This is to keep his back legs away from us (where he could take a kick if he felt threatened). By using rods as extensions of our arms, we were able to project our body language onto him at a safer distance. We kept asking and putting pressure on him until he did what we want. Soon he would recognise what we were asking and turn towards us most times.
Being the leader of the herd, you have a responsibility to meet the calf’s needs. We had to step up and meet his need for safety, for belonging, for shelter, food and water. By meeting his needs, we are fulfilling his requirements to be part of a herd (even if we look different to him)
Lesson Three: Make the good behaviour easy and the stuff you don’t want hard
The calf naturally didn’t want to be with us at all. He moved away from us and sought refuge by sticking his head in corners of the yards. This behaviour was not what we wanted, so we continued to put pressure on the calf by moving towards him and making him keep moving away from us.
Until he stopped – and looked at us. As soon as he did what we wanted, we stopped and took the pressure off. And it was amazing how quickly he worked out that stopping and looking at us gave him the reward of us stopping the pressure – and lunch.
Each day we worked gently with Moo for around 15 minutes or so. It only took a couple of days and we were able to put the halter on him. The same principles applied – the pressure stopped as soon as he did what we wanted. It didn’t take him long to work out that following us around was the best way to stop the pressure. We modified his natural behaviour to generate the behaviours we were looking for, than trying to break his will.
Lesson Four: You have to be mentally ready
A couple of times the (not so) Little Helper and I were tired and not in the head space to enter the yard with Moo. It was almost instantly apparent that we were not achieving any progress. The best action to take was to stop the session and come back when we had mentally prepared to put our best foot forward.
Lesson Five: Mistakes are OK
We made plenty of mistakes. And it wasn’t a problem. If we put ourselves in the wrong place, Moo’s behaviour would let us know. It wasn’t that he was doing the wrong thing, often we were. The main part was to look at what we were asking and reflect on how we should approach the problem differently. Often it was that we were looking at his shoulder instead of his flank – and once we understood what we were doing from the calf’s point of view it was easy to change.
What does it mean?
Training a calf has been a great opportunity to reflect on how we treat each other and are treated. When you enter that yard, you have to be the strong leader that the calf is looking for… and you can’t hide behind clever words. The calf reflects your behaviour in the purest sense, as all he responds to is your body language. You have to be firm, consistent and look for ways to make it easy for the calf to do what you want.
Unfortunately at Christmas time or so, Moo will be sold. It will be a sad day on the Rock Farm for which I hope the (not so) Little Helper will forgive me.