You know the one…the cow that is your best friend when things are going right. The same one that has the ability to send the entire herd running to the other end of the pasture with just one look or tilt of her horns. Whether you have a love or hate relationship with your boss cow, knowing how to work WITH her is the best way to make everything operate more smoothly.
Step 1 – Earn her trust AND her respect. If you get this right, you can do anything! The boss cow is the top of the herd and is used to getting her way. For your safety (and sanity) she needs to know you are NOT part of her herd and she can’t intimidate you or push you around like she can everyone else.
There are a few popular ways Highland owners can establish a solid report of respect with their animals. One of the easiest, and most popular is to carry a big stick…literally! On our farm, it’s a 4′ piece of PVC. Others use a cane, walking stick…really anything that can essentially act as your ‘horns’. Use your stick like you see your cattle using their horns. Example: A gentle poke or prod to get the others moving in the right direction….or simply raising it horizontally with a stern voice has worked well for us to establish that we’re not to be messed with.
To build trust, our favorite method is a simple scotch comb. I’ve seen people who attach them to the end of a broom stick or bribe with food for the more skittish animals. It may take time and patience, but there is nothing more rewarding than the day you can walk up to one of your animals in an open area and they CHOOSE to stand and let you comb them.
Once your boss cow understands you’re in charge and you’ve earned her trust, it’s time to let her do the work! She’s already a pro at controlling and moving the rest of the herd, so why not use that to your advantage? We have multiple reasons we may need to bring the herd to the barn to work them, or move from pasture to pasture. If your boss cow is halter broken, simply slip on a halter, lead her to where you need to go and the rest will follow. (Don’t try this with anyone other than your boss cow…trust me, it gets messy quickly!) Not halter broken? Try her favorite treat or a bucket of feed. Just be cautious, around food is the only time our boss cow can get pushy. Make sure you have an escape plan (fence to jump over, ATV to get behind) if she gets too close for comfort. Herding, focusing on your boss cow, can work as well…but in our experience, Highlands follow much better. We prefer leading or having them follow us with a bucket of feed over herding any day.
Whether you’re moving cattle from farm to farm or have another reason to load a group into a trailer, this is another situation where you want to make sure your boss cow doesn’t work against you. When moving the herd, we just talked about letting the boss cow lead, but when it comes to loading a trailer (or really moving them into any enclosed space) the opposite is usually true. Think about this… you load up your boss cow first (she’s the leader, right?), everyone starts to follow, she gets to the front of the trailer, realizes there isn’t anywhere else to go and decides she’s headed out. She’ll turn and take the entire herd back out of the trailer with her! In this case, load her last and she’ll help you push the others to the front of the trailer.
Last, but not least, is some other advice we’ve learned the hard way (a few times). Anytime you’re working with your cattle and need them to enter/exit through a doorway or gate, ensure your boss cow isn’t standing on the other side. Lock her up or otherwise make sure she stays away. Ours thinks it’s a really fun game to just stand immediately outside of the barn, not letting our other animals exit.
While those boss cows can seem intimidating, making sure you understand your herd dynamics and have earned your boss cows’ trust and respect will make working with your herd a more enjoyable process.