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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Concern for the cows

I don't get the chance to get up-close and personal with our cows very often. They sleep in the barnyard most nights but at the crack of dawn they fill up with water for the long walk down the pasture. Their days are spent grazing the back meadow, away from pesky sheep, donkeys and horses.

They can see (and possibly smell) the corn crop but they can't reach it. The nearby forest offers a bit of shade and the sun beats down on the middle of the field, perfect for the midday nap. Our cows don't lie close together. Each one has his or her own piece of pasture for personal space. The other day I drove past a farm on Patterson Corners Road that was recently sold. The new owners brought in horses right away, and now they have some cows. I had to take a second look at the first cow, which appeared to be double-wide until I saw two heads, it was two calves lying very, very closely together. Cattle are herd animals and they don't like to be alone, particularly when they have been moved to a strange new environment. My cattle must be feeling fairly secure, then.

At high noon on a hot day, the cattle will usually meander back up the long, winding path they have made through the fields back to the barn. They rarely stray from this path, when the unanimous decision has been made to return to the barn. They head straight for the water trough in the corner, drink their fill and then head back out to pasture. I think of the effort it takes for them to lift and move their huge Mack-truck bodies, especially when they are pregnant. However, if you stand out in the barnyard shaking a noisy bucket of corn and call as loud as you can, you might see a feat of athleticism not often witnessed on the farm.

When inspired (by promise of a treat), those cows can kick up their heels and run like huge dogs. If Betty is particularly excited (because she thinks someone might get to the treat before she does), she adds a threatening hip-twist and kick to the side. This is supposed to remind everyone that she is the leader of the pack, the Queen of the herd and the first to be offered any special snack. It may work on the rest of the cattle but to the rest of us it just looks ridiculous.

When the calves were born in January, we had one that couldn't figure out how to nurse. His mother would give us a worried look every time we entered the barn to feed another bottle to the calf. Normally when this happens you get in the pen and bring the calf under the mother, grab a teat and squirt some in his mouth until he takes a hint and latches on. That trick was impossible with this duo, however, because the mama cow wanted to kill the Farmer the minute he set foot into the pen.

So we raised that calf on formula. Two 2-litre bottles in the morning and another two at night. He survived and thrived on eight litres of fake milk a day. That truly amazed me.

Now when you look out at the pasture you can definitely see that this calf is the smallest of the bunch, but he has plenty of fat on him. And according to the Farmer, he has lots of energy too. Yesterday the cows were calmly grazing when they heard the tractor entering their barnyard. With purpose in their steps, they started back toward the front field. As soon as she spotted the bale of hay on the tractor - the first of the season - Betty broke out into a run. She led the pack for a moment, and then was overtaken by the little one. He is light on his feet, and very fast. He probably had no idea why everyone was running, but he wasn't about to be left behind. Now that he has experienced the whiskey smell and taste of silage for the first time, however, you can be sure he won't forget it.

Because she didn't have a calf on her all season, Ginger is the fattest of the bunch. She is likely going to birth first this time, because she went back into heat earlier than the others too. Hopefully we can get her in the Farmer's new cow chute soon, because we need to cut that collar off her before it turns into a choker necklace.

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