Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How We Halter-trained Our Dexter Heifer

This post is done by special request for a reader who asked how we trained our first Dexter calf, Siobhan, to lead.  He remembered reading that her dam was a "touch me not," and he wondered how we went about getting her heifer to be so gentle and easy to work with as a family milk cow.  They have a cow who is similar to our Sara and hope to train her heifer as their milk cow.  As I looked back through my old photos to try to find some tips for him, it occurred to me that I should share them in a blog post.

This post is not a tutorial on the best way to train a Dexter to lead, nor is it exhaustive in its suggestions.  It's merely an account of what we did, including some mistakes we made, but since we can look back and see that it turned out well, it seems worth sharing.

Sara calved on Nov. 4, 2010 in the round pen next to our barn.  Siobhan, as we named the calf, was adorable, but we weren't allowed to touch her!  In fact, the only photos I have of Siobhan as a small calf are across the round pen with my telephoto lens.  Whenever we came around, Sara would move her baby to the opposite side of the pen!

Like many "newbies," we had made a couple of errors.

1)  We had no way to get animals from the barn to the pasture unless they could be led.  Up till the time we got Sara, we always led the horses back and forth, and that worked fine.  It didn't work for Sara!  We had to drive the trailer into the pasture, lure pregnant Sara into the trailer, and drive her up to the round pen.  Luckily, we did that a couple days before she calved.

2)  We had no system set up to be able to separate an over-protective mama from her baby.  So all we could do was watch from the sidelines.  Again, luckily for us, Sara was an easy calver and an experienced mama, Siobhan was a vigorous calf and a good nurser, and they got along fine without any help from us.  Talk about beginners' luck!

Herb was already in the process of building a barnyard when Sara calved.  The next day, Sara and Siobhan are in the round pen (far left), while the fence posts are set, braced and ready for the the wire.  (As a side note, we used no-climb horse fence to be sure the barnyard would be reasonably secure from predators, a safe place for small Dexter calves.)

By Nov. 13, the barnyard was finished, and it joined the round pen with a gate next to the stall on the left front side of the barn.

We were now able to let Sara into the barnyard where she and Siobhan would find shelter for the winter, and her hay could be kept dry.

Nov. 19 was a red letter day!  Sara allowed 2-week old Siobhan to approach me and make friends.  That was an encouragement to us that a "touch me not" cow could produce a friendly calf.  Not only had Siobhan's sire Hillview Red Wing shared his polled genes, but apparently his genes for good temperament as well.

We took advantage of our barn's design to create a pen where we could separate Sara and Siobhan.  If you look at the photo of the barn above, you can see the support posts across the front of it.  Serendipitously, they were 12' apart from side to side, and 10' apart from front to back--the perfect distance to be spanned by corral panels.  Two 10' corral panels end to end created a long pen in one "bay" of the barn, and one 12' panel closed it off at the front.

We began making friends with Siobhan, brushing her with a soft horse brush and getting her used to being handled.  A trick that I recently learned from a "cow whispering" young lady is to observe where mama licks her baby and replicate that with the brush or scratches.  Mama knows her baby's sweet spot!

It was easy to lure the curious, food-loving Siobhan into the pen and close it to keep Sara out.

By Jan. 3, we were giving Siobhan halter training lessons.  We kept a halter on her to make it easy to get hold of her.  Since then, we've discovered the handy mini halters that have a "catch strap" on the small sizes, perfect for getting hold of a skittish calf.  While we were in the barnyard working, we would tie Siobhan up short, leaving her to figure out on her own that fighting the halter makes it pull, while yielding to it relieves pressure.  We never leave a calf unsupervised while it's tied!

After Siobhan had been tied for a while, it was time to practice leading.  We applied gentle pressure to the lead rope and waited for her to take a step forward.  As soon as she did, we immediately released pressure to reward her.  Another bit of pressure, another step, another release.  We limited our work times to about 10 minutes.

Sometimes Siobhan got stubborn, as you can see from this pouty face and braced stance!  We learned that trying to get her to move sideways was often easier than asking her to walk straight towards us.

The carabiner clip on the halter is the solution I came up with because the rings tend to disappear into the folds of flesh under a bovine chin, making it hard to clip the lead on.  It was a good way to clip on quickly, then move the clip to the more secure ring before tying or leading her.
By Jan. 7, Siobhan was beginning to follow on the lead.

Sara, of course, was always worried that we were going to harm her baby.  That's why our pen was vital to being able to work with Siobhan in peace--from mama AND the curious horses!

In February, Siobhan enjoyed a scratch from Kim Newswanger, Sara's former owner.  The difference is remarkable between Sara, who actually knew Kim (and who always responded better to Kim than she did us) and 3-month old Siobhan making friends with a stranger.  Again, this highlights to me that how you handle a calf and the calf's own temperament are just as important--if not more so--than the dam's influence on the calf.

In March, Siobhan met our daughter's new puppy and was extremely friendly.  Sara has never liked dogs and kept her distance.

By Apr. 2, 2011, Herb had finished fencing in a 2-acre pasture behind our house.  The pasture is across a drive from the barnyard, and when both gates are opened, the four gates create a fenced alley between the barnyard and pasture.  This enabled us to turn Sara and Siobhan out to pasture without any fear of Sara getting loose in between barn and pasture.

Although Siobhan got handled less once she was turned out to pasture with Sara, two weeks later I was able to walk up to her in the Lower Pasture, clip a lead rope on and lead her.  (That pasture almost connects to the Home Pasture with all the gates open, another key part of our pasture design plan for animals like Sara.)

On Aug. 9, Siobhan was 9 months old.  She was used to a halter because she'd always worn one.  Even though this one had the chin clip broken, it still stayed on, and we had no problem taking hold of it or handling her on a lead.

Siobhan and Sara both got new halters for Hallowe'en.  Unfortunately, we simply couldn't keep a halter on Sara; despite the horns, she always managed to scrape it off, and eventually we gave up.

Let me add one important caution here:  When haltering a calf, ALWAYS monitor the halter and loosen it as the calf grows!  Halters can and do get too tight and cause actual injury if not loosened as necessary.  A halter is for an animal that is handled regularly!  Even a grown animal can gain weight or add a winter coat that makes a halter become too tight.

Siobhan has always loved to have her chin and throat rubbed and does not mind having her halter handled.  This photo was taken Nov. 9, 2011 when she was a year old.  I'm convinced that early habituation has made us able to turn her loose for weeks at a time, then walk up to her and put on a halter.

A naturally good temperament, regular early training and periodic reinforcement work have combined to turn Siobhan into a family milk cow that is easy to handle and lead anywhere.

We're continuing the tradition with Macree, her 2013 heifer.  Macree just followed me into the stanchion yesterday, with only a little urging from the lead rope, and stood there eating hay until I pushed her out!  She hasn't been in the milking parlor since I weaned her in February, but she has good memories of getting fed in there--and a habit of going where she's being led.

That's one reason I'm a fan of early halter training!


  1. Susan, I hopped over from your Through The Wardrobe blog. So nice to discover this post. What a wonderful informative story and such cute animals. Love all of your pictures, looks like you are keeping VERY busy! :)

    1. Thanks so much, Janell! I'm glad to see you visited. My poor "Through the Wardrobe" blog is a bit neglected, but what you see on here is my excuse! I just had to run a puppy to the vet this morning after she got her toes wrapped in chicken wire (all is well), and now we're heading out to rectify our mistake of letting the bull in a pasture next to the one where two open heifers are. Oops! Gotta get him back where he was--far from the ladies! See you later!

  2. Wow, Tai was so small at that time! Thanks for the trot down memory lane!

    1. "Trot down memory lane!" LOL! Yes, Tai was so small, and so was Siobhan! It's hard to remember they were ever that small.


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