Wednesday, December 26, 2007

How Cows Think

These days, there are three cows in our barn. We own four Irish Dexters; miniature cows that are pitch black, with long soft fur. But we only have three at home in our barn.

We started out a year and a half ago buying two one year old heifers. We have an old barn and 22 acres of land behind our village house, with 5 acres cleared for grazing. Since we wanted to milk the cows, the first summer we had a bull come and stay in our field for a few weeks. It was a successful visit, and in the spring of this year, our cows each had a female calf.

The calves stayed with their mothers for two months. It was hard to send them to our friend Scout’s farm, but we decided we needed to separate them so that we could milk the mothers. We figured that two months of nursing for a calf was as nice as a year of nursing for a human baby, but we almost caved on the whole deal when the cows mooed balefully for 24 hours, when they realized their babies were gone.

The first week of milking was very tough. My hands swelled, I was stomped on, and the milk spilled several times. We had never milked a cow before. The cows had never been milked by humans before. We were doing it by hand on skittish cows, and we were lost. Worse yet, we were trying to teach ourselves to milk by reading books and articles on the Internet. When I found out someone who had hand milked Dexters, I ended up talking to her everyday that first week.

The cows calmed down. We spent the summer and into the fall drinking fresh raw milk from our cows. We made butter, ice cream, and a simple mozzarella and felt blessed. The milk tasted better than anything I had ever had.

We had to stop milking this fall, when our day jobs took over. But the bull had come to visit this summer, so it appears we will be able to start over again next summer.

In the meantime, the prima donna of the two cows, aptly named Pout, started not allowing the Giddy, the other cow, into the barn. She'd put her head down and push Giddy out the door roughly. They had always gotten along well. Things had changed and we couldn't begin to understand what Pout was thinking. Frankly, we didn't really have time to figure it out.

We asked Scout to swap our calves back for Pout. They came back to our farm halter trained and chubby. After a couple of weeks Giddy seemed to recognize her calf, but would drive the other away, out of the barn. We fed them separately with one pile of hay in the paddock and one in the manger in the barn.

As it got colder and the water trough was freezing outside, Daisy needed to come inside to drink from the heated water buckets. I’d yell at the mama cow and tell her, “No, no!” when she’d push the calf away from the water. But the more I yelled, the more she did exactly what I didn’t want her to do.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that you can’t treat a cow like a dog. I started to try to think like a cow. Could it be that with two other animals, she was now insecure that she'd have enough to eat? Could she simply be hungry? I doubled her hay ration and this simple change worked.

During the nor’easter storm last weekend all three were snuggled together on the fresh sawdust, mildly chewing their cud. Ever since, on cold days, they eat together, drink together, and lay together in the barn.

You can’t learn about how cows think from books. And I can’t believe I am enjoying figuring it out. It just took some stopping and thinking, and maybe a little of the cow getting used to the new situation, for Giddy to be her mild old self again.


Papa said...

I like your post. I spent some time around cows about 25 years ago but never considered as a young boy that cows had much of any thought. Now these many years later I am spending some time with 30 cows that have moved in next door to me. I am very intrigued with how they think and spend a lot of time just sitting and watching them. The cows are basically wild with no significant human interaction but Ihave managed to get to where they will let me mingle with them. I have really found a lot of enjoyment just hanging out with a bunch of cattle. It has also been eye opening to some human behaviours as well. It amazes me how much we actually think alike.

Mary said...

thank you so much for your comment. I have a post today about trying to figure out what cows think. I love it when I have time to watch them and try to figure out their wild natures!