Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Addictions in Livestock, Part Two

Click here to read "Addictions in Livestock, Part One."

Our 17-year-old cow Rhiney, who liked to "nose push" on a metal gate
Recently, I looked out the window and noticed that one of our cows in a nearby pen was standing by the water tank with her eyes closed and her nose resting on the lip of the tank. I realized she was “nose pushing,” getting an endorphin “fix.”
My husband and I first noticed the phenomenon of nose pushing in cattle one winter about 42 years ago, when our cows were confined during calving season. We always put the cows that were most ready to calve in a small maternity pen near our house, where we could watch them closely and could put the calving cows into the barn if the weather was cold or give assistance in a difficult birth.
The maternity pen near our house and barns . . .
. . . where we can watch the cows closely as they calve.
For many years we calved in January, to avoid the mud and scours of March/April and to have the cows all rebred, to our own bulls, in April, before they went to summer range on public pastures. In our steep mountains, range breeding was never a satisfactory option because the cattle are widely scattered in rough terrain; cows don't get bred as quickly as they do in smaller pastures, where there's always a bull in close proximity. Range breeding, on our range, always meant a long, strung-out breeding and calving season.
So we calved in January, and the cows would all breed in April, while still at home on small pastures, in small breeding groups, with planned matings. Each cow was put with the bull she best “nicked” with or one that was not her own sire or close relative. We have very fertile cows; they’d breed in a 32-day breeding season. Then we took the bulls out and sent the cows to summer range — and this made a nice, short calving season.
When we calved during January,
we usually had to put each cow into the barn to calve . . .
. . . bringing them back out when the calf was dry and nursed.
But in this situation, calving in January, the cows are more closely confined than normal for calving. During January in our part of the country, it can be below zero. So this meant having the pregnant cows in an area close to the barn, checking them frequently during the night, and putting them into the barn when they went into labor. We calved in January for 35 years, and our cows are gentle and easy to handle — very mellow and at ease with confinement.
Yet even an easygoing cow can be bored and frustrated in confinement. When walking through our soon-to-calve cows at night, I spotted a strange behavior. I first noticed it because I heard the snuffling sound of a cow slowly breathing through closed nostrils. The cow was standing with her head down, nose pressed against a frozen manure pile, eyes closed, seemingly asleep. On closer inspection I could see she was not asleep, but in a trance, with upper lip jammed hard against the solid object. After a while she'd quit nose pushing and go on about her normal activity, eating or chewing her cud. After seeing this several times (with several individuals who did this more than once), I realized I was witnessing an addiction. These cows had found a way to relieve their boredom and make themselves feel good.
One of the water tanks in our maternity pen. Some cows
occasionally press their upper lips against the metal rim of the tank.
Since then I've noticed that some cows do this routinely when confined. One spring we had two cows who nose pushed on an old coffee can that was covering a well casing in one of our small pens — when they were confined in that pen with their young calves. A few years ago we had a 17-year-old cow and her calf in a small pasture by the house, babysitting a group of orphaned bottle babies. The old cow periodically pressed her nose on the latch bar of the open metal gate between two pastures; she’d found a perfect place to do her nose pushing.
Even in a pasture with room to roam, if it's winter or early spring and there's no grass to graze (to occupy their time and interest), cows get bored. With just hay to eat — which generally can be eaten within a few hours — this leaves the cow with not much to do the rest of the day. Some relieve their boredom by nose pushing on an old tree stump or on the metal edge of the water tank or a gate. Any firm surface will do.
A friend who raises purebred cattle mentioned that she’s noticed this same behavior in their show cattle. They are often confined in barns, especially when at the fair or a show, and have figured out a way to relieve their boredom.
There are pressure points beneath the top lip in horses and cattle that when pressed stimulate the release of endorphins. This is why a horse can be calmed and “sedated” when twitched (the thong or chain of the twitch, twisted around the top lip of the horse, puts pressure on this area) or when a lip chain or cord is applied beneath the top lip against the gum. And this is why cattle, if they discover the effects created by pressing their top lip against a solid surface, may continue this habit.
A nose twitch works to calm a nervous horse and keep him calm
and still for medical treatment, because the pressure on the
upper lip stimulates release of calming endorphins.
A bovine probably discovers this addiction by accident, just as a horse discovers that repetitive actions, which also trigger release of endorphins, make him feel better. A horse’s frustrated attempt at getting out of his stall — walking back and forth by the door or eventually refining the motions to shifting his weight back and forth as he bobs his head — can give him this sense of well-being. Some horses get this same kind of fix by grabbing the manger or any other available surface with their teeth and later perfect the action of jerking the head back and swallowing air, a behavior called cribbing.
Perhaps the cow started her addiction by rubbing her face and nose on a solid surface to scratch an itch and then found that pressing her nose harder, putting pressure on the gum beneath the lip, made her feel good. No matter how it started, the cattle that learn how to trigger their internal “narcotics” often continue the habit. You may see them nose pushing when they have nothing better to do. So don’t be alarmed if you see a cow standing in a trance with her nose pressed against a solid object. This is just her way of kicking back with a beer or a cigarette, getting her fix.
Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

You can read all her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts

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