Cows have many hidden skills, from doing tricks to offering rides, coaches say


Cows who are trained and kept busy have better lives than dairy animals stuck in barns, say cow coaches. Photo: dpa

Although she weighs in at a solid 900kg, Emmi steps gracefully onto a small stage.

The six-year-old cow knows her routine and climbs onto the wooden platform, a mere 60cm wide, just as she has been trained to by her coach, Markus Holzmann.

Holzmann, 21, is well-known in Bavaria and beyond, teaching tricks not only to Emmi but also an ox named Huge, horse Prinz and several other cows.

He is so successful that he is now able to make a living as a cow trainer, with work taking him throughout Germany and Switzerland.

Most of his clients are hobby farmers who want to learn about handling animals, he says. Some even bring their cows and horses to his farm in the Allgau region near the Alps, where he’s set up a training area that resembles an oversized centre for training dogs.

Laura Runkel also knows that cows can do more than chew cud, produce milk and be slaughtered for meat.

Runkel, 21, has trained several cows so school children can ride them, much to the youngsters’ enjoyment in her district of Ludwigsburg.

“We’re part of the local schools’ curriculum,” Runkel says.

She also works with farmers in the region if they’re struggling with a particular animal.

Further north, in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Jan Langbein is finding out more about the hidden talents of cows, although for different reasons.

Langbein is a scientist at a research institute for livestock biology in Dummerstorf and he is trying to work out whether it is possible to house-train calves.

It is a project with an environmental focus, to reduce the amount of ammonia that is formed when a cow’s urine and faeces mix. The chemical is not only harmful to the environment but also the climate and human health.

Ammonia emissions could be avoided, however, by keeping urine and faeces separate.

In a first series of trials, the Dummerstorf team trained 11 of 16 calves to the point where they were able to pee in a latrine more than three-quarters of the time. The scientists used a combination of rewards and penalties involving food and cold water splashes to reach that level.

In fact, the researchers say, the calves were just as successful as children undergoing potty training. Further experiments in the animals’ natural environment in the barn are set to follow.

“If you ask animals the right questions, you can discover a lot,” says Langbein.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with teaching cows tricks or using them to ride, in his view.

“I don’t see any problem at all as long as it’s done through positive conditioning, so with rewards,” says Langbein.

While it’s important not to teach cows skills that run counter to their natural behaviour, the training that Holzmann and Runkel are doing is beneficial to the cows, he says. It keeps them busy and in contact with people.

“These cows definitely have more fun in life than a dairy cow in a barn,” says Langbein.

According to a spokesperson for the Bavarian farmers’ association BBV, behavioural training is also important in livestock farming.

When it comes to dairy cows, farmers use positive reinforcement during milking, by feeding them concentrated feed, to make them want to return to the milking system.

But “good and conscious handling” by the farmers also plays a role, according to the spokesperson, for example, by talking to the cows in a relaxed voice and stroking them.

Farmers in the Allgau region, where Holzmann has set up as a cow training specialist, also like the idea of offering rides and coaching.

These kinds of opportunities mean consumers come into contact with agriculture and animal husbandry, says the BBV spokesperson.

However, despite their talents and skills, cows are still animals, not humans, the expert says, warning that their behavioural patterns shouldn’t be misinterpreted.

Cow trainer Holzmann doesn’t spend too much time worrying about that. For him, the most important thing is treating the animals with respect.

“A cow doesn’t do anything she doesn’t really want to do,” Holzmann says, adding that this, above all, is what he teaches clients.

Emmi helpfully demonstrates this trait after performing her trick. It takes a lot of patience and persuasion on Holzmann’s part to get the cow to follow him to the barn.

“Well, you have to make it worthwhile,” he says with a laugh. – dpa/Frederick Mersi

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