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Getting a heifer to listen to reason

By Sue Wunder / January 28, 1999



That bit about leading a horse to water, lent a slight twist of focus, might have been said of young heifers: You can lead one to shelter from a storm, but you can't make her cross that welcoming threshold. And at 200 pounds (give or take a flashing hoof's weight), Betsy wasn't about to get a ceremonial lift over, either.

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It was New Year's Day, and I wanted to get her into a barn pen before the predicted severe storm struck. Betsy had spent more than half her life - the entire summer and uncommonly mild fall - in a roomy outside paddock, sleeping on an open hay bed under a simple, slanting roof. This dry nest would soon be uninhabitable, covered in blowing snow and ice.

Cows can weather a storm outside, if they are fed well. They bunch in a sheltered spot and stand like stoic statues, moving only for water, and from one feeding and milking to the next. They are different from heifers (female prepubescent bovines) in many other respects. You can talk to a cow and explain a situation, not so much with words as with gestures and tones embedded in clear contexts.

Once, for example, after Hannah calved at the farthest edge of the back pasture, I left her to tend her damp and leggy bundle under the sunny skies. I could bring them in together with the other cows at day's end, when the little calf was sure on her legs.

Time got away from me that day, and dusk was gathering when I went for the cows. I found Hannah grazing peaceably at the edge of the farm's backing forest, but she'd sequestered the calf in some private pocket of the edge brush. I began a quick search that proved fruitless. With night swiftly closing in, I returned to Hannah, cupped her tawny muzzle in my hands, and spoke crisply: "Take me to her." She blinked, turned, and did just that.

Hannah is unusually easy to talk to, but most of our cows are responsive. They come when we call them by name, and seem to know what we want of them. If it's reasonable by their standards, they comply.

Not so heifers, which are nothing like cows until they become cows by giving birth. The winsome, oblivious, and empty-headed creature that goes into labor with a start of surprise emerges from the experience ready to buckle down to the business of mothering and making milk. Almost immediately, she begins to think like a cow. Then we can reason with her.

Show a cow a hay-bedded stall, and tell her it's going to get mighty cold tonight, and she'll be inside before you close your mouth and step aside.

Betsy, though, responded to this inviting logic like the youngster she is. The short distance between her exposed pen and the cozily prepared nook might as well have been a 12-foot wall. Once released from her fenced enclosure, she ignored my directions, kicked up her heels, and reveled, occasionally uttering an explosive bawl, as if bowled over by her new and seemingly boundless freedom.

Betsy leapt about gamely for a bit, but the frozen ground was unwelcoming, and she wasn't thrilled with freedom for long. Just as I'd hoped.

The main dairy herd, clustered along the outside feeding racks, gave her little notice beyond head butts if she ventured too close. I began to whistle and cajole from the barn door as she skittered and slipped up and down behind the line of her elders. Finally, she turned toward me.

I had a bucket of grain, which added considerably to my presence. A few minutes later, I almost had her inside. With her nose thrust in the bucket, she was following like a blinkered horse, and I was already thinking ahead to my chair by the wood stove. Then our black Lab, who is new to the farm and still trying to get a good scent-hold on the place, trotted up and nosed Betsy's pale underside. It was a gentle, friendly contact, but it sent the heifer bolting backward, and she was off again. After a few more unsuccessful attempts to bring her in, I began to wonder if this heifer had even the rudimentary seeds of cow-like compliance.

Cows notice things, even when you don't want them to. By now, several of the herd had begun to wonder what I was doing swinging that bucket, chattering at the wary heifer. Aries suddenly lifted her nose and turned toward her chums. Grain, anyone?

Time now factored into the scheme of things. I was working to beat not only the gathering storm, but several approaching cows as well. They aren't as fast as heifers, but their progress, once charted on a chosen path, is almost nightmarishly inexorable.

It would take a while over the frozen-hard barn lot, but Aries and her cohorts would get to me, oh yes. I reckoned I had about a minute to lure Betsy in before the cows converged on the grain and chaos ensued. Happily, Charlie appeared to push the heifer unceremoniously from behind. At last she was in and the door firmly fastened. The cows paused, then kept coming, passing me peaceably on the way to the water tank. Why waste that slippery walk altogether?

The big storm arrived, leaving the outside pen an arctic wasteland and the farm encased in ice. But in the morning, when I opened the door to Betsy's stall and clicked on the light, she blinked up and rose with a lazy stretch as if she hadn't a complaint in the world. Which was the whole idea all along, even if she didn't have a cow's good sense to know it.