The Gentle Approach to Animals Saves Time and Money

From GENE LOGSDON (1985)
…with 2011 update
Garden Farm Skills

With a very small number of animals on a homestead, the whole tenor of livestock management differs from that of the commercial farm. You get to know your few animals well as individuals, and you become almost friends with them. Chore time becomes pleasurable. If you have hostile animals, you can get rid of them and buy others. And, if after a while you cannot find gentle animals, nature is telling you something. I have always believed that a good dairyman would be successful in any working relationship with humans because if you can get along well with a bunch of cows, you can get along well with anyone.

Animals are creatures of habit, too. Domesticated, they will tolerate being trained to a routine somewhat foreign to their instincts, but once that routine is established, they do not look kindly upon an abrupt change. Change only confuses and alarms them. You must be patient, or suffer the consequences.

A totally gentled cow — the only animal I can talk about with conviction — is a pleasure to be around, more relaxing companionship than most people. She will not kick you when you are milking, if she considers you her friend, although she may fidget and raise her foot if she has a sore teat. Don’t yell at her for that. She will let you trim her hooves when she is lying down — a job that otherwise you need a special (expensive) tool for, since a cow will not generally let you lift its foot up in your lap as a horse will.

Animal Talk

Animals can talk to you and they can understand most of what you need to communicate to them, so long as you do not get into anything as abstruse as the philosophy of Spinoza. Mostly they understand your tone of voice and will respond amazingly. I have a tone that they know is angry; another they know is happy; another that means please go out the door, ma’am; and another that means Go! They know by my movement and my voice whether I’m just walking by or whether it is time to get up. If they don’t want to get up, my cows lay their heads low to the floor and shake them in a very plain No! When they want to show me how pleased they are, they come up and lick me. When the horse is angry at me, she turns her rear end to my face.

Animals have many different sounds for communicating with each other. Knowing them can help you. Even if I couldn’t see, I’d know when a ewe is going to accept her lamb — by the gurgling, almost inaudible sound she makes to it.

Body Language

Animals communicate with each other either by body language I can’t always pick up or sounds I can’t hear. The cow, for example, knows when the horse is going to chase her away from the water hole at the creek, and when the horse is going to sidle up in a friendly fashion — long before I can denote any flattening of the ears or baring of the teeth. If I could learn this language, I could communicate with them better. They in turn can occasionally sense my anger even before I think I have revealed it to them. They distinguish my different facial expressions. The horse and dog especially sense the slightest frown or smile and react accordingly.

This kind of intimacy makes work in the barn much more pleasant and easy. Hoof trimming is one example. Another is heat detection. On a homestead where there is only one cow, the novice homesteader has a difficult time knowing when his cow is ready to breed. (Cows will ride each other when in heat.) But if you are very familiar with your cow’s character, you will know immediately when she is in heat, even before the telltale physical sign of excessive mucus issuing from the vagina. The cow will be noticeably belligerent, nervous, pushy, flighty — anything but her normal languidness.

Our horse taps gently on her stall gate when she wants out. If she gets no reaction from me, she taps louder. And louder. Finally I yell — to save the gate — and she stops. She knows at least that I’ve gotten the message. In the field she has a cunning way of continually walking in front of me and stopping. I finally realized she was trying to discourage me from leaving her.

Being gentle does not mean that you must be wishy-washy. I will whack, firmly, but not too hard, a balky cow that decides she just will not go out of the barn right now, thank you. Once whacked, she invariably moves with alacrity if I just wave the stick. The big calf will occasionally decide to keep on nursing after I tell it to go back to its pen. A prick with the fork changes its mind. But don’t whack your animals until you have won them over completely with kindness. Until then, too much physical discipline will make them wary of you forever.

To gentle an animal to easy handling, I think you should start from birth. When I have bought an adult animal, I have never been able to instill in it the trust and understanding of home-raised stock. I started our flock of sheep with ewes raised elsewhere. They were wild beyond gentling, and they have passed their distrust of humans on to their young. Some day I will get rid of them and start over with bottle-raised lambs.

[Update 5/15/11: Truth be known, the wildness that my first four sheep were infected with continued to infect their offspring to this very day in 2011, although only in a much milder form. I never had the heart to get rid of them and start from scratch. For example, no matter how gently and slowly I enter the barn, they still will rush out as if the devil were after  them. Then they stand outside, stare at me sheepishly, and realize that they are acting stupid. They then come back inside again, even though I am standing there, and brush right by me. So all my patience over the years is not lost.] 

Stop to pet your animals as you pass their pens. Take a choice tidbit out to the field to feed them. I’ve never had any trouble catching the horse for work or riding, as seems to be the case on so many homesteads. The horse always comes up to me, associating my presence with something enjoyable. I always feed her a bit of oats when I first put her in the barn, for the same reason.

Nevertheless, there will probably be times when you do lose your temper with animals. Be ashamed, but not discouraged. We all do, and always to disadvantage. It is sort of like smoking. Once you really resolve to stop it, you can. And like stopping smoking, the rewards are great. Around the barn, calmness pays in every way.


OK, if we’re going to start with Latin, I would add (most appropriately given the infinitely risible nature of this bunch): “ego rideo risi risum , proinde ego sum”. Or if you prefer the Greek way of looking at it: η ζωή είναι μια κωμωδία. You are all just about as crazy as I am!

Descartes aka Roof May 20, 2011 at 7:58 am

Defaecato ergo sum!

I think I love you all! Now I have proof that not everyone in this world uses an adversarial approach to livestock. I thought not – but to see the name Spinoza in a farm blog. happy sigh.
Next you’ll be writing about Teilhard de Chardin and the noosphere of farm life?

I just had a not-so-profound thought thanks to Gene and Beth.

An agricultural reconstruction of Spinozan philosophy that accomodates the spontaneous simultaneous occurrence of both awareness and substance may be accurately summarized by the universally understood and accepted “shit happens”.

Gene, of course awareness and substance occur simultaneously in the barn–’cause on a morning when you’re doing the chores in a half-awake state, you come to awareness just as you plant your foot in the middle of the substance of a cow flop!

A few summers ago our neighbors herd of beef cattle got out. The animals were down in our hayfield and Rik and I took up a post on our deck to sit back and watch what we figured would be a rodeo as he rounded them up. We could hear his ATV coming through our back pasture, then it stopped. Then we heard….



All the heads popped up in the field below us. Those cows turned around and nice as you please trotted back the way they had come, mooing to our neighbor who had started his ATV and was put-putting home.

I asked him his secret and he said he bought out-dated bread and trained them to come when called 🙂

Wonder Bread indeed!


Russ, Chiara, Granny, Beth, Jan, ALL of you guys and gals are so COOL. I’ve always known that people attracted to gardening and farming were very special but to have a group of them coming together to talk to each other this way is just so gratifying. Even Spinoza would have been excited. Why, he might have figured out that awareness and substance just might occur simultaneously, especially in the barn. Geme

Are the sheep Border Cheviots?

I’ve managed to tame most farm animals in increments with lots of peanut butter cookies or graham crackers and daily encouragement and patience.
In fact some large livestock I’ve made so tame that they have the potential to be dangerous to me.
Nothing like a frisky 800lb. steer or a determined 280 lb. hog when then coming a running to see mama(me).
They don’t know that they can really hurt me.

That said – I’ve never been able to tame or get my Border Cheviots to settle down in the least bit.
No matter what I do.
Border Cheviots are hyper and I think that’s just the way God made them 🙂

I loved that russ! “Freedom heifer!”
I love how any time our animals escape (and crash the chicken coop for a grain binge) we find out a little more about what makes them animals, and what makes us human. The possibility of being absolutely stupid seems to be what makes us human. After all, humanity is alone in its gift of risibility…right?

This afternoon we finished carting 15 sheep to new pasture via the back of our little tan Buick. When we finished we realized in our haste to get the job done we had forgotten to lay down a tarp. Needless to say our Icelandics had no trouble “getting the job done” while in transit.
But seriously Gene, your post comes timely for us..I was just about to give up on our bossy little Jersey…but perhaps she was just in heat after all, and needs a little patience…perhaps I ought to allow for 2 bossy ladies on this farm…:)

    I must admit Chiara, that I had no idea what risibility meant. But having looked it up, I really like your point and agree that it is a gift.

“and Sanity” would be my addition to the title. Sunday morning on my way out to do chores before church, I noticed a heifer standing in the big garden across the lane from the pasture containing the rest of the cattle. This was undesirable since the only fencing is around the pasture and she was on the other side and fairly close to the road. My immediate reactions were unadmirable as I conveyed the great inconvenience being imposed on me. In the process of yelling towards the house for assistance and trying to drive her towards the gate by the barn, I lost all remnants of serenity. In the open spaces and soft ground that is Lake Ohio this spring, she had no problem continually circling back to her preferred area of the garden. At the moment of rage which would have ended in a bovine demise if I had possessed a firearm, I had an epiphanal thought. “This is stupid”. I walked away from freedom heifer, crawled through the fence into the pasture and started driving the rest of the cattle up toward the field lane to the barn. All of a sudden miss independent didn’t want to get left behind and followed willinly to a place where she could be reunited with her herdmates. I even let her think it was her own idea. Church was even more meaningful than usual. Repentance is good for the soul.

I really enjoyed your relaying of Buffy”s insights. I would like to hear his thoughts on whether Spinoza’s posit that substance has given rise to awareness is any more reasonable than awareness being the precursor of substance.

I loved this – it’s so true.
Thank you!

We no longer have livestock but I am always amazed when i help people put their escaped cows back in the pasture. If you move slow, keep your distance, and save your agitation for when it is needed the process goes so much smoother than if you are always waving your hat and making a holler! Excellent post, you are so right with animals.

Thanks for another great essay, Gene! This one is dear to my heart.

To me, you can’t have a farm without farm animals. I know vegans and vegetarians who toil with their vegetable farms, constantly having soil tests and tweaking soil chemistry with this or that imported amendment. But we have goat manure — more precious than gold to an organic farmer! Farmers didn’t have soil nutrient imbalance problems until specialization removed farm animals from vegetable farms.

One can still be vegetarian and enjoy the benefits of farm animals. Goats or cows for milk, all manner of fowl for eggs, bees for honey. But best of all, all these animals perform other vital farm services: clearing brush, eating insects, pollenating plants, providing manure — the list goes on an on. As one vegetarian farmer said when asked if he eats his chickens, “Why would I want to eat my workers?”

Our goats are especially communicative. One time, they kept getting out. We’d go round them up, and try to find the hole in the fence, to no avail. Maya, the herd queen, was standing at one spot while we were inspecting the fence. She looked at me, and I said, “Where are you getting out, Maya?” She made a quick, definite head movement, pointing at a spot in the fence, then looked back at me. Sure enough, there was a hole there big enough for a goat to crawl under.

Gene, this post reminds me of the opposing points of view my husband and I brought to marriage. In his world, animals who didn’t do what they were supposed to were beaten into submission–unfortunately, so were the children. I favored the gentle firmness approach, with the occasional whack when nothing else would do. I can still remember the day he was having a face-off with a filly who was reluctant to go into a pen and demanded I bring the stock whip. Since I knew this filly would not respond well to that treatment, I went out and took the lead rope; with a little coaxing, the filly entered the pen. After considerable grumbling, he conceded that my way was probably better, and we’ve used it since (on kids as well as animals–I drew a definite line in the sand where kids were concerned). But he still has a tendency to revert in high stress situations, such as the day the milk cow knocked me flat on my back; the only reason she didn’t get a whuppin’ was because she was on a high lope to the far pasture. I think it also depends on the animal. We had one brood mare who raised the sort of colt you never, ever hit for any reason; even a gentle scolding would bring them quickly to penitence for bad behavior. But I also remember a family dog that had to be spanked on a fairly regular basis; he was a tough, hardheaded alpha male who just flat would not respond to the nice approach. I guess the key is knowing the animal and choosing the right discipline. And I figure I can always get out the big stick later if I have to!

karl francis kohler May 16, 2011 at 11:12 am

I remember many years ago – back in the early 1970s working on a dairy farm. I had seen other farmers treat their cows meanly and as if they were just a part of the business. I could never do that. This guy – near Metcalf Ontario, was so gentle with his girls. Told me NEVER hit one of them… well some days it took awhile to get them into the stalls, or no nudge them out of the barn – especially in winter – they would complain lowdly and begrudingly move… Ive been squished a few times – like they were telling me something :O) I loved working for that guy, and have always treated animals with care, respect, and admiration for all they give us…

Hi, my quick comment is also about chickens. A friend bought 6 young hens from an auction, it wasn’t enough so I raised a few more for him over the winter with my newest layers. At his house the two Wyandottes I raised “by hand” are always at the front of the coop and walk right up to people. No human has ever given them a reason to be scared. The auction hens avoid people like the plague. Which ones are “smarter”? (hehe) Thanks for the insight!

Hi Gene!

I’ve been enjoying your posts for a while now. Something tickled me especially about this one, so I had to comment. My spouse and I are new homesteaders and also university profs (me: English Lit, he: Philosophy). So far, our only livestock is chickens, so I can’t speak to how a cow or horse would react, but my beloved is a specialist in the philosophy of Spinoza (whom he sees as a precursor to Arne Ness and Deep Ecology)and the chickens seem to respond very well to discourses on the same. They also respond well to commentaries on Martin Buber, or so my love tells me . . . :))


    Anna, one thing that my Buff Orphington rooster insists on is that if Spinoza had lived today, he would not have had to argue so strenuously what he thought was important back then. He could instead have concentrated more on breeding chickens and practical stuff like that. But you have to understand, Buffy is an extremely vain bunch of feathers. Gene

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