Food ChoiceThis was a feasibility study, not a full-blown research study. A lot of the time was invested in mapping the area under the learning curve. As someone who spends most of my training time in innovation, I have learned that everything that is new takes longer than expected. Much longer. For example, the first pigs that we taught to stand while we stuck a five inch needle into the vena cava, an inch from their hearts, took about three times as long to train as the second group of pigs (one hour each). But that is a different story…

With the cows, first I had to get to know them, and they had to know and trust me. We had to cover basic training, so that we could work together harmoniously and safely. I had to figure out logistics – how could they communicate with us. Should I have them push a button, and if so, what kind of a button would stand up to a bunch of cows!?? And, very importantly, we needed to figure out exactly what to ask them. Mark and I were working on that one together. We finally decided to give them a choice between food and a five minute date with a bull.

The choice would be offered via two vinyl tiles, each with a unique graphic, one representing a bull (it was a bull’s eye shape) and the other representing food. When a heifer made a choice, she then must proceed directly to the reward station that she chose, thereby proving that she knew what she chose. In other words, if she chose the bull, she must go straight to the gate leading to the bull – or she would have lost her chosen reward. Likewise, if she chose food, she had to go directly to the feeding station, on the opposite side of the paddock. Only once the heifer was in position, awaiting her reward, did the graduate student move to deliver it. No heifer ever made an error in going to the station for her chosen reward. It seemed that they knew exactly what they were doing.

At the same time, Mark was designing the rest of the study. Besides figuring out exactly what to ask the heifers, Mark had to make sure that he could determine the reproductive state of the heifers, so that he could later see if they chose the bull when they were fertile and not otherwise. And, he had to be sure that none of us knew whether or not a heifer was going to be in estrus. He designed the experiment so that I, being the one to offer choices, did not have an opinion ahead of time as to what that choice would be. In addition, he designed the experiment to give the heifers up to three choices per session, to be determined by a random number generator. Mark would be using injected hormones to synchronize the heifer’s estrus, and he and Karen would be doing the injections, while I would be giving the choices – so I never knew what the estrus schedule was.

Meanwhile, Karen Clingerman was a grad student of Mark Varner’s, and became a valued friend and colleague. You can see her in the photo, standing on the outside of the fence watching the heifer make her choice. Karen had a vested interest in what the heifer chose. Karen and I logged a lot of hours together, training, cleaning and socializing with cows. One thing we did not do together – cow chaperoning. That was strictly Karen’s domain, courtesy of a conversation that went something like this:

“Mark, if you are going to let these heifers in with that bull, how do we get them back out.”

“You Just go in and take the heifer away from the bull after their five minutes are up.”

“When you say “you” do you mean “some as yet unknown person”, or do you mean, “you, Kayce Cover,” because Kayce Cover has never worked with bulls before and I don’t want to learn what makes them really angry by being the one to tell them that the date is over.”

“No guts, no glory, Kayce. Well, then, the graduate student will do it.”


“Hey Karen, Mark says you will go in and tell the bull that the heifer has to go home.”

“That’s cool.”

“Karen, I know you don’t have heirs yet, but I told him I didn’t think it was totally safe and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to do it….”

“I’m cool with it.”

“Are you sure.”


Karen was quiet, self-contained, and had a huge wild streak.

“Well, if I were you, I would be very polite about it.”


“Karen, If something happens to you, can I have your stereo …. can I have your car?”

Next time, “Trespasser”