Cattle Handling: Fear versus Respect
A common misunderstanding that novice cattle owners have is the thought that a cow will fear you if you strike it. Of course, I am not advocating beating a cow or other kinds of cruelty to animals of any kind. However, if you watch cattle, it will quickly become apparent that cows are very physical animals. They are not gentle with one another and express dominance by roughly pushing and shoving one another around.
When you own cattle, you should not confuse fear and respect. You do want your cattle to respect you, but you don't want to cultivate fear in them.
Many cattle have a natural fear of people. Perhaps they have never been around people much, or they may be of a "wilder" breed. For instance, brangus cattle often are a bit more flighty by nature. Sometimes this is just the way that they are going to be, and you will have to accept it.
However, there are other cattle that do not have a natural fear of people. They may be curious and friendly. Or they may be simply neutral toward people. If you mistreat a cow, you will cultivate fear in her. Mistreatment can be in the form of teasing or unnecessary roughness. Fearful cattle can be just flighty or they can turn extremely mean. If you abuse your cattle or allow others to mistreat them, they will be fearful. Getting them loaded in a trailer or handling them for routine vaccinations and health treatments will be a huge headache because they will head for the hills when they see people.
Don't allow your kids to tease the cattle. I know of a good cow that was completely ruined when a farmer allowed his kids to hit her and throw rocks at her when she came up for food and water. Don't allow people who are unnecessarily aggressive with cows to help you on the farm either. Cattle should be handled quietly and with a minimum of excitement. Yelling, repeated slapping or hitting, and general chaos only stirs up stress hormones in cattle and makes them more difficult to handle.
Respect is quite different from fear. When your cows respect you, they understand that you are the boss. Because you supply their basic needs, they are happy to see you. However, they won't run over you to get a bucket of grain and they will approach you tentatively.
Getting respect from your cows is a lot like raising a toddler. You supply the goodies: grain, scratches, hay, water, and minerals. Those are the positive interactions. However, there are also a few negatives. Pushy young calves may get slapped on the nose. Cows that bump you while you're repairing a fence get their ears tweaked. Usually, the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones, and the cows learn how to properly interact with you.
If cows are only "disciplined" when they push into your space or behave aggressively toward you, they will learn to respect you and your space.
Cows that have mostly negative interactions with people will become fearful, unpredictable cows. However, cows that do not learn limits and respect become aggressive, unpredictable cows. Either way, they are not pleasant or safe animals to be around. Teaching cows respect balances the two extremes between permissiveness and abuse.
If a bull or an overprotective mother cow is running at you or looking like they are going to knock you over, don't try to "teach them respect." Use good sense. Respect needs to be taught in your day to day interactions, like at feeding times or when you are moving them from field to field.
Certain cows can be just downright crazy. Don't fool around with a nutty cow too long. Sell her once you've determined she's too wild to handle. It's not worth the hassle and danger to have a mean, crazy cow around.