Nothing gets our cows moving like the sound of the storeroom door opening, followed by the dry slide of grain from scoop to bucket. Having recently retired with us from the dairy business, our herd has nothing better to do all the midwinter day than to focus on the barn, where the grain has always been stored. Ears erect (the better to catch any signal, however subtle, that I might be about to feed someone), they attend to the possibility as only bovines can.
I give grain to the draft horses and to our nanny goat on a daily basis, but the cows subsist nicely on hay, now. When we were a commercial dairy, they too enjoyed daily grain rations as they stood in their milking-parlor stanchions during milking. But we have had to wean them off this expensive supplement, now that the last milk check has come and gone.
I tell them they have nothing to complain about, even so. We're not selling them off to the unknown, are we? Those who have left have gone to good homes nearby. The remaining cows, all dry - 15 of them - can jolly well eat their hay and do without the $6-a-bag grain habit.
But that is my take on things, not theirs. And so they follow my every move when I chore about near the barn, ears swiveling like softly haloed satellite dishes whenever I slip inside. Getting grain to the goat and horses without their noticing and trooping en masse to the old parlor door for their share is almost impossible, but it can be done with stealth and patience.
I have found that the best time to make my move is when the herd feeds at the outdoor hay racks behind the corncrib. With scheming heads plunged into six or seven bales of grass, alfalfa, and oat hay, they may not notice me working my way into the barn. But occasionally, the end cow, glancing around the corner of the linear racks, spots me. Then it is all over.
Within minutes, big, moist bovine noses line the windows, doors, and wider cracks in the barn's siding. Elsie even has the nerve to butt the door, and the know-how to do it obliquely so that it might just slide open. I have to be on my toes.
To complicate matters, I have one cow who could really use a daily grain supplement. Madge had a calf last summer who will not quit nursing, and the big heifer's nutritional demands have taken a toll. A few weeks ago, I noticed that Madge was beginning to look thin, and I began to sneak her some grain when I could.
She colluded with this wholeheartedly, and soon developed her own stealthy ways of gaining access, unnoticed, to her special rations. Within days, I had only to walk along the hay racks and hiss "Madge!" almost inaudibly out of the corner of my mouth. She'd look up, feign renewed interest in her hay for a moment, then casually back away and begin ambling toward the water tank, which is just outside the milk-parlor door. Meanwhile, I'd head off to meet her via a long, circular route that took me up past the house.
"Hey, I'm just thirsty," she seemed to signify by her laconic departure from her mates. Once near the milk-room door, though, she quickened her pace and slid into the brief opening I made with an alacrity that revealed her true nature - pure, self-serving bovine.
Madge has consequently put on some needed weight. So has Jennifer, the generational great-grandma of the herd. Nothing that happens around here escapes her notice for long, and she soon found a way to join in Madge's morning ritual, equally careful not to alert the others.
I know it's only a matter of time before the jig is up and the rest of the cows catch on. But for now I'm enjoying the chance to pamper one or two, to sit on an overturned bucket and watch them munching grain from their usual stanchions. It's not as much fun as milking used to be, but the parlor seems animated again for the brief time they're in there. Maybe, like my cows, I need to wean myself slowly from comforting old habits.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor