Making friends with your animals

A friend of mine once made a profound statement when we were talking about farming. He said, “The best fertiliser is the farmer’s footprint.” What did he mean by that? Basically, he was saying, if you walk your paddocks, you can see the health of your pasture, and the soil and get to know when things aren’t looking right. When you are riding a quad or driving a truck, you can’t get the same amount of observation as on foot.

The same goes for livestock and part of knowing when something is amiss, is to make friends with your animals. I don’t mean inviting them into the house for a cup of tea or sharing the bed, but have a relationship with your livestock so they know and trust you. You can save a lot of money by spotting something out of the ordinary early.

Livestock that have lived on your property for a while will react very differently to say lambs that have been brought in straight from their mums. These lambs will be confused, probably hungry if they have come from a sale yard, and disorientated. The same goes for newly weaned brought-in calves, fawns, or kids.


So how do we make them comfortable with our presence?


The first thing I do after buying in-store lambs is to let them settle for 24 hours. You should be quarantining them anyway at this time. After this, I will go for a quiet walk through them without a dog or vehicle. I will wander around until they realise I’m not planning to chase them and they start to graze while I’m still in the paddock. If they are in a big paddock, I will gently push them towards the trough, so they know where to get water. Often, lambs will have drunk from the trough when their mums had a drink and so have to learn on their own to respond to thirst.


I never shift new mobs of lambs until they are completely at ease with my presence. I will also gradually take a dog, once again just being there with the dog without actually using it. The calmer the stock, the easier life is for everyone. When you do need to shift the lambs, they will be quieter, more responsive, and less likely to panic and go tearing off in all directions.


Existing stock

Even if your stock has been on your property for many years, it is still a good thing to wander through them, sit with them, or check fences and troughs in their paddocks. This way they don’t associate you as just being there to take them to the yards to do stuff they probably don’t like. The opposite is also true - you also don’t want them to associate you with food and mob you and follow you around. You want to see how they behave naturally.


Why is it important?


The more time you spend with your animals, just being there, the more you will recognise their personalities and behaviors. 

You get to know who are the shy ones, who are bold, and which ones are bullies. Knowing this can help understand the natural hierarchy of the mob or herd and know when to intervene if necessary. You may choose to take animals that are being bullied out of the mob and graze them separately. 

The hierarchy of a mob will change over time but a sudden change is a sign something is not right. If yesterday's herd leader is being pushed around she may be ill and therefore perceived as weak by the others. They will know before you do!


You will get to know instinctively if something is off with one of your animals as you become attuned to their normal behavior. You will pick things up that other people probably wouldn’t notice. Is a normally friendly animal hanging back? Is an active animal lying down when others are up? 


The benefit of this is that the earlier you can identify something that is not right, the earlier it can be addressed. For most things, it’s easier and cheaper to fix the earlier you get on to it.


It is also therapeutic for us humans to be able to just be part of the group with no expectations on either side - an opportunity to take some downtime.


If you want to read a book, take it out into the paddock with you. After a while, you will have stock lining up out of curiosity to take a look at what you are doing. This is a great time to be able to see the animals up close in a relaxed way that isn’t possible when you’re working with them in the yards or shifting them to another paddock.


It’s these quiet times you might notice a split hoof, a sore eye, or new lumps or bumps. Late evening or early morning are great times to just be with your animals. There is usually a sense of calm that precedes the beginning or the end of the day.


Talk to your animals - get them to know your voice. Call them when you want to shift them as an alternative to driving them - you never know when your ability to call them may save their lives. 


Animals respond to each other's voices and will get to know yours too.


An example of when a person's voice did save the lives of her cows, was during Cyclone Gabrielle. Cows were caught in a flood and the owner was calling them to get them to swim over to her. Because they knew her voice and trusted her, they did just that and so were saved from being swept away.


There are many benefits to understanding your animals’ true natures. So, make friends with your stock and develop a relationship of mutual trust that can save you time and money and prevent unnecessary suffering. Good luck!