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Understanding cows key to Dairy Stockmanship
The Dairy Stockmanship Training Program emphasizes that animals learn from every interaction with handlers. - photo by Photo Contributed

Danny Avila, manager of Clauss Dairies in Hilmar, had a problem. Farm employees were expending too much time and energy in their daily handling of cows. Seeing as cows are the bread and butter (literally) of the dairy industry, Avila sought a solution. He found the answers to his interspecies relations problems in the Stockmanship Training Program.

The Dairy Stockmanship Training Program emphasizes that animals learn from every interaction with handlers. Thus, by developing an understanding of how animals learn and gently encouraging intended animal responses, dairy handlers can significantly reduce the amount of injuries that result from animal and human contact.

 “Every interaction between people and cows shape the future behavior of both,” said Don Höglund, founder of the program.  “These interactions can be efficient or inefficient, but are very rarely neutral.

According to Hglund, the underlying goal of Dairy Stockmanship is to empower safety and efficiency in a humane human and animal relationship. The program teaches individuals to learn how large animals sense and learn from the environment and what triggers adverse reactions.

“It isn’t magic and isn’t something available only to a gifted few ‘whisperers,’” said Höglund.  “It must be learned. It is logic."

Through hands-on experience, those attending a session of the Dairy Stockmanship Program recognize the importance of human presence, action and emotional control when creating movement, turning movement, slowing and stopping movement or flow in farm animals, said Hglund.

Avila appreciated the fact that he had the opportunity to take the course at minimal inconvenience to his dairy operation, noting that only two handlers had to be absent from the dairy while attending the course.

“The hands-on portion is the most important part of the program because that is when the handlers actually and physically buy-in to the concepts and techniques,” said Avila. “For example, realizing that bottle feeding contributes to why cows always face the handlers was eye opening to the fact that we create our own problems and training hurdles when we ask the cows to move away from us."

Dairy Stockmanship is the result of a collaborative effort between Hglund and Paul Rapnicki in 2010, at the time which Hglund was attending the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State and Rapnicki was attending University of Minnesota.

Both developers could not ignore the growing consumer demand for transparency in food systems and the need for consumers to know where their food comes from and how it was produced.

“Food safety has always been a leading concern but increasingly dairy buyers and other customers expect both environmental sustainability and humane treatment of farm animals,” said Hglund. “The human and animal interaction appeared to be the consumer’s number one agricultural concern.”

Together, they highlighted the strengths of Höglund, who had 30 years of professional animal handling training and behavioral science applications under his belt, and Rapnicki, who held an interest in converting a number of beef cattle handling methods to dairy operations.

While Rapnicki ultimately made the decision to leave to find a job in the industry, Höglund endeavored on to enhance the program that went on to merit national and international success.

The success of the program also garnered national acclamation in January through Charles Ahlem.

Ahlem, who has a 6,000 cow dairy operation in Hilmar, was named as the 2015 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year for his emphasis on animal care and well-being, an achievement Ahlem credits to Dairy Stockmanship.

Along with his son and co-owner Mark Ahlem, Chuck Ahlem took part in the employee training program on animal care and Stockmanship, a term defined as “skillful handling involving low-stress approaches, proper methods, effective techniques, gentle tactics, and all of the procedures done in a safe manner.”

Employees who participated in the program noticed sensational improvements as they were given the opportunity to better understand cow behavior and how to handle animals correctly. They also began to experience more pride and responsibility in their jobs, and were better able to identify and address areas for enhanced cow care and comfort.

Overall, employee injuries due to cows also experienced a significant drop of 50 percent, as well as decreased severity of injuries.

Hglund hopes to recreate the success that Ahlem has experienced in all dairy operations that participate in the Dairy Stockmanship Training Program.

“Dairy farmers and their staff enjoy and benefit from education,” said Hglund. “Handling animals is the centerpiece of a peaceful, productive farm environment."

For more information on the training program, visit www.