Training Cows

Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

I am personally not enchanted with the idea of training horses because if one wants to use animal power in place of a tractor, I’m prejudiced in favor of cows or oxen. Cows and oxen, I believe and shall try to show, are better geared to the smaller homestead farm. This belief is based partly on psychology rather than technology — I do not have the proper temperament to work horses (especially to train them!) but I get along well with bovines. It so happens that my earliest recollections of fear come from three runaways involving horses —  two I merely observed as a child, and one that I was the principal participant in. I have no romantic notions about horse farming. I have also been thrown from riding horses, one of which I was “breaking,” so I have a dim view of horseback riding as a sport. It almost always turns out to be a luxury only the rich can really afford, if anyone can…

Training Cows to Lead

It is not always necessary that a cow be trained to lead, but you will find that ability of great advantage, especially on the small homestead. Sometimes you have a field or lot not directly connected to the barn It is easier to lead the cow there and back rather than try to drive her — especially if the route is over a public road or past a garden. Or you may wish to lead your cow to the neighbors’ for breeding. The only way I think a cow or any animal can be trained to lead or do anything is to start when it is a young calf. But a mature cow is at least easier to train to lead than a mature horse, if the cow is one of the smaller breeds that is not much stronger than a man.

In addition to a halter, put a safety rope around her neck (a rope alone will do) and run the rope through the ring of the halter. Be sure the rope is tied with a knot that will not slip tighter as the cow pulls. The trick is to pull the cow’s head sideways against her flank when she gets rambunctious. You can keep her from exerting her full strength against you that way, perhaps going round and round in a circle until she begins to understand she must go where the rope beckons her. When she balks, don’t try to outmuscle her — you can’t. Pull her head sideways to get her moving again. If she absolutely refuses to move at all, tie her to a tree and let her stand still for a spell. A firm whack on the back (don’t overdo it) sometimes chases away mulishness in a hurry, as does a light prick with a pitchfork. But soon — by the third day of training at least — she’ll start following you on the lead rope. To help matters, take her over familiar ground, such as a path she has traveled routinely, during those training sessions. After training is complete, the safety rope is no longer necessary.

But you will have a far easier time training young calves to lead then you will cows. After they get used to the rope, you can even stake them out to graze, which will get them accustomed to obeying the rope, too.

Getting a Cow Used to Being Milked

If you wait until a cow freshens to start training her for milking, you will have a hard time of it for a few days. But if you have no choice, that is, if you hadn’t had a chance to train her when she was a calf, start milking her with her calf at her side, nursing at the same time.

When the cow kicks a few times, don’t give up and quit or the cow will think she has won the encounter. Stay in close to her flank where you are safer than if you try to stay far away and reach in. Milk with one hand and keep the other ready against her leg. If she moves the leg back, move your hand with it, so she never gets a good free swing going. If she lifts her leg, which is what she will normally do, hold your hand and arm against it, even pushing it back down. Hang in there. Don’t try to milk into a bucket at first. Just milk onto the ground. Her kicking and fidgeting around would likely upset the bucket anyway, or she’d put her foot in it despite your hand blocking the way.

If she gives you a vicious sideways kick, it sometimes helps to give her one good firm whack right back, but no more than one per kick. Fidgety little kicks should be tolerated. Yes, you’ll know the difference. The situation is made worse by the fact that the cow’s bag usually is swollen when she is first fresh, and it is sore. If you can maneuver the calf over on the most swollen teats and you milk the one or two the calf has already nursed, so much the better that first time or two. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that if you keep a cow fifteen years, you won’t have to “break” very many.

I’m dubious about devices cunning humans have made to outwit kicking cows. If you must resort to leg hobbles or the back clamps that press against and deactivate muscles and nerves that control the cow’s kicking mechanism, then it seems to me you have maybe won the battle but lost the war. When I was a kid we used leg hobbles on wayward cows. They would then jump up and down, both legs together, like a pile driver. Once I decided to fix an outlaw cow for good. I ran a rope tied to her one back leg around a solid post in the wall behind her and pulled her leg up off the ground. Standing on one leg, she could not possibly kick. With a triumphant air I sat down to milk in peace. The cow fell over on me.

The back clamps, usually called cattle controllers, really do work, I’m told, and may be of special use when a cow must be milked that has a badly cut teat.

My way of training a cow to milk is to start when she is a calf, periodically going through the motions of milking as she grows. She gets used to the idea long before she freshens, and milking goes smoothly from the start; rather smoothly anyway. Actually, it takes most of the first lactation to get the cow totally relaxed with milking. And the older the cow gets, the easier the job becomes. Eventually she will soon let her milk down for you as for her calf.

Some farmers try to “housebreak” cows by disciplining them from defecating in the milking stable. Big mistake. That’s the first thing a scared or nervous cow will do. The calmer she is about coming into the stable and leaving, the less chance of manure in the stable. If cows are lying down when you come to put them in the milking stable, don’t roust them up and run them in immediately. The first thing a cow wants to do after she has been lying down a while is defecate. Let her stand up and do so before walking her into the stable.
See also Gene’s Oxen Power for Family Farms


I am a bovine person myself. I found with most first calf heifers that are kicky, if you scratch the heck right out of their back where the tail meets the back bone, they are too preoccupied with how good it feels to care about what is going on with her bag. I would do that with one hand while massaging and stripping her with the other. I tried the clamps, don’t like them. This little trick works about 95-98% of the time.

Hhhhmmm. Maybe that’s why my husband doesn’t want to sell Daisy.
There’s this quite battle of the wills going on. This war of Grit and Honor. He just doesn’t want to give up on her…it will mean she’s won.
He’s noticed she starts to butt him around if he stands in front of her, or trys to lead her by walking ahead of her…it seems easier going if he’s off to the side…at first we thought it meant she was winning…but now we’re wondering if it just means she’s a cow.
Having Daisy has made me more appreciate my goats. They’re like big dogs. That said, I think goats are more like people…very distinctive…hard to lump them all together, which probably explains the differing opinions here…
We typically get a yearling buck (not too big, not too stinky,)to do the job for us for a few months…and then sell him or turn him into meat afterwards…that avoids the stanky milk problem…
The advantage to goats is that they can thrive on pretty poor forage…which is why they’re called the poor man’s cow.
We kept goats at our old place in woods, and they cleared out all the invasice buckthorn like you wouldn’t believe…I made fresh chevre and earned my grocery money that way every week.

Later I read Juliet de Bairacly Levy, who says there is nothing better for the overall health of a goat than taking it for a walk every day through woods…she learned he animal knowledge from the gypsies…and I have followed her advice many times to miraculous effect. Honey and mint tea has ressurected two of our goats when they seemed all but dead.

Plus there’s the look on people’s faces when you tell them that you possess animal healing knowledge from the gypsies…farms are already magical to most visitors…that one knocks them far into fantastical!

I was almost ready to get a goat until I read your post John. That was a classic. Your line about goat milk tasting bad and not good for anything but drinking reminded me of my patronage of a local grocer several years ago. I usually make an early Sun morning donut run to drop off for the grandkids. I used to get them at the bakery of a locally owned grocery. They were fabulous. Much to the dismay of the baker and myself, the ownership decided to change baking supplier and simultaneously increased prices. The last time I bought donuts there I told the baker that the donuts weren’t nearly as good as they used to be, but at least they cost a lot more. She agreed.

I know nothing about goats. But I heard Joel Salatin say they are browsers by nature and grazers only by necessity and very susceptible to parasite issues when forced to graze. I do know from experience that training older cattle to lead is an excellent litmus test for spiritual maturity.

Having raised goats and cattle, for meat and dairy, I would recommend goats for small scale family farms. Don’t take me wrong, I really loved my cattle, even the bull. But they take more land.
I used 10 strand barbwire, lots of extra work, but not as expensive as goat panels, especially when you have lots of land to fence (I pastured about 100 acres).
For breeding with goats, if you do not want to keep a buck/billy, buy one at auction and sell him after the does have been bred. Or, find a neighbor with a buck.
Good stout wethers (castrated bucks) make good small scale draft animals as well. Both Hoegger’s and Caprine Supply have information on draft goats.

In the long run though, it’s what you want to raise and how much land you have to raise them on. It also depends on the area and predators, if you have coyotes, wolves or feral dogs, you will need guard dogs for goats. Cattle can pretty much take care of themselves, depending on the breed.

I can’t believe anyone would recommend goats, but I guess it takes all sorts. I don’t know much about cows, but I can’t ever remember anyone having to get them down off the roof of the house before you can milk them.

We had Nubians when I was a teenager and I think Ms. Greenwood’s husband (Mr. Greenwood?) is on to something. Our goats were impossible to contain (I think they have tiny little wings that fold out when you’re not looking) until I literally built a chicken wire enclosure with a top. Of course, then you’re into confinement feeding. Even goats don’t deserve that.

I’ve also heard over and over about the lawn mower thing, but I know from experience that they will only touch grass once they’ve finished off every grape vine, fruit tree, and garden vegetable within a mile and chewed up a garden hose, some extension cord, and any random car parts they can find. Then, after checking the clothesline and walking around on top of the cars for a while just to assure themselves there are no fruit trees they missed up there, they *might* settle down to nibble on a little grass… unless, of course, you have flowers.

As for disposition, I’ve given up on comparing them to anything else. They are in a league by themselves. When you see a grizzly bear with sore teeth you can say, “yeah, that bear is darn near as unpleasant and spiteful as a dairy goat.”

I’m also amazed at the idea that a goat won’t defecate or put its foot in the milk. I guess maybe you mean at the same time, I confess I’ve never seen that.

The milk is another thing. The flavor is a matter of taste, I guess, some people talk about it having a “nutty” flavor. It always tasted to me like the goat smelled but maybe that is just guilt by association. Still, there’s nothing like a gallon a day of milk that tastes bad and can’t be used to make cream, butter, or cheese without special equipment. At least the pigs would drink it… and me of course, being a teenage male I’d eat or drink anything with calories in it at the time, but I made very strong egg nog out of it first. Now chickens, they’re worth the trouble.

I do miss having fresh milk and we’re considering getting a cow, or maybe trying a dairy sheep, but the first time I find either one on the roof it’s target practice for them too.

On bucks…they are stinky in rut and gross (they pee on their beards to “perfume” themselves for the ladies). But my Oberhasli bucks are really quite gentle and I have one that is quite the romantic. He will “kiss” his doe and politely talk to her before mating. At about 175, they are not huge animals either and I’ve never had a buck get out…they tend to be very content. I would take a buck over a bull any day, and you can find people willing to “driveway breed” their buck to your healthy doe if you don’t want to keep a buck.

Of course I follow Gene’s advice and use stock panels for my fencing. So far in 7 years of goats, it has never let me down.

I agree with Deb: this whole essay makes me glad I have goats!

They are much easier to push around (you can’t *pull* a goat) and are more intelligent, making them easier to train.

I have *never* had a goat defecate or urinate while milking! If they dance around and refuse to get up on the milking stand, I’ve learned to be patient: after they poop and/or pee, they willingly go up on the stand.

Also in agreement with starting young. We handle our kids all over, getting them used to being touched between the legs. This makes first milking MUCH easier!

We sometimes use a hobble (that we nick-named “Vacslav”) on new milkers, or on one with mastitis or other reasons to not want to be touched. I find they learn from it quickly, and we discontinue it after a few days. Mostly, it hangs on the side of the milking parlour, just in case we need it. Carol made it out of bits and pieces from her sewing kit. You put it around their Achilles tendon, just above what you might think is their knee, but is actually their heel. (Recall that all didactyls walk on their toes.) Tighten it just enough to cause their heel to straighten a bit, and they physically cannot kick.

Here’s all you need to know to copy our hobble:

Good advice on trading a cow for a goat; only downside is the necessity of a “billy”. They are difficult to negotiate with. I attempted to “buy” into a small herd of goats and a cow recently, but I had my lawyer look at the contract I was going to sign, and I might have been liable if the livestock got out on the state highway. That would have been expensive milk for me. I used to milk a Nubian, and enjoyed the milk, but not the “billy”. I did not have much luck changing his ways, and the older he got, he became more territorial. He became sausage. Goats are excellent scavengers, and very intelligent. Great lawnmowers, too.

Same reason I’m looking for mares to breed to my stud, Deb–although a trip to town in our case means a thirty-five mile jaunt. For right now, we try to just go down the hill once a week. I agree that goats might be easier, unless you have a husband such as mine who believes they are only fit for target practice. Don’t know why he has such an aversion to them, but it might have something to do with the goat he and his siblings tried to break to pull a cart when they were young…Gene,while I would normally agree with you that hobbles are a failure of the training method, our cow came to us at three with her second calf. We don’t milk by hand because my husband has had several neck surgeries and physically can’t push his head into the cow’s flank. And although I can milk, despite hours and hours of practice, I have never been able to achieve any speed–the cow can make it faster than I can milk it out. So we do use a rope around the hocks because otherwise, Maybelle will kick the milker in the process of trying to kick off flies. My homemade fly repellents (elderberry, rosemary and eucalyptus leaves ground, mixed with water and strained into a spray bottle), are just not strong enough in the middle of summer when the little beggars are extra voracious.

That should be “too” scary…sigh.

Or if cows are to big and scary, get goats. One good milk goat gives plenty of milk (a gallon a day) for a small family. They are cheap to feed and easy to handle, especially the medium sized breeds like Oberhasli or Toggenburg. And they are fun..goats are very intelligent, are easy to train, and can be very curious and affectionate. We had cows (Dexters) and sold them and got goats. Never regretted it.

If gas prices keep going up, I intend to keep my wethered kids and train them to pull a wagon. That’ll get me to town and back. LOL

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s