Given A ChoiceI travel a lot in my work with animals, and would like to share my experiences. I train and manage animals, and communicate with them. When I say communicate, I don’t mean in a psychic way, although I don’t dispute that that is possible. I mean in a tangible way, where I ask a question, which an animal answers, and which can be objectively evaluated. In other words, if I ask a heifer if she wants to go in with a bull or have a snack, and she chooses the bull, she must also go straight to the gate leading to the bull’s enclosure, rather than to the food dispensing station, proving that she knew what she chose.

So, let’s take that example of the heifers choosing a date with a bull or some grain. The University of Maryland’s progressive dairy science researcher, Mark Varner, Ph.D., was looking for an economical way to find out when cows are ready to be rebred – to keep them in milk production. This was a 1.5 billion dollar question in the dairy industry in 1987. It used to be that it was easy to tell when cows were ready to be bred – they would mount one another at that time and not at others. However, with the advent of new dairy farm building practices, resulting in less room and oftimes slippery floors, cows quit jumping around, and subsequently, quit mounting one another when they were estrous (fertile and ready to breed). So now, how was a farmer to tell when his girls were feeling romantic?

I was at the University giving a seminar presentation when a youthful looking Mark Varner raised his hand to ask a question.

“Can you teach cows to tell you when another cow is estrous?”

“You don’t want to do that”

“Why not?”

“You will turn a lot of good cows to lying! If you are going to pay them to tell you that Suzy cow is in estrus, then they may tell you what you want to hear. Is there something they want when they are estrous that they don’t want at other times?” (This brought many smiling, speculative looks.)


“Great. Why not ask each one if she is estrous? We need to ask her if she wants that thing that she wants when she is in estrus, that she does not want at other times. What might such a thing be?”

“How about a bull?”

“Do you have a bull? ”

“We can get one…”

Bulls and bull by-products are surprizingly easy to come by at agricultural universities, but that is another story. Our bull was named Trespasser, and he was quite a gent. I say our bull, because I agreed to collaborate on a feasibility project, and went back to school at U Maryland, to complete a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science. It was a great school and a great program, and we had some great cows.

Next time, the research design…