On a farm, you must learn to speak 'animal'

Our goat emerged from the milk room and stared up at me, her entire body exuding a rather annoyed impatience. 'Oh, now what?' I thought.

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Our animals have ways of getting through to us if something needs our attention, especially if it's them. Watch our three dogs pad casually up to their empty bowls at about 5 or 6 p.m., and you couldn't miss the expectant little "ahem" quivering from their tail tips. Or witness their woebegone, ears-down misery at the simple lilting promise, "I'll be back" (which they hear as "I'm going, you're not").

OK, dogs and people understand each other with a fluency born of long and intimate association. But other creatures manage to break the language and species barrier just as handily - provided our auxiliary antennae are up and functioning. I say auxiliary because our other animals - the farm animals - generally come at us edgewise. Direct messaging, as in bellows, bleats, and foot stomps aside, cows and horses can package a lot of information in uncharacteristic behaviors and stances. It is up to us to crack the codes.

Why, for example, did Bernadette keep turning back to the woods where she'd just delivered as we tried to lead her and her little calf into the warm, dry barn that raw winter's day? Any bovine worth her milk focuses on nothing but the calf and its comforts after birthing. We won the battle of where she'd go, but when I checked on the twosome in the barn later I suddenly got the message. She'd had more work to do there in her nursery bower. One calf had become two.

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As for Nellie, she presented the almost perfect picture of bovine contentment that spring morning as she and her herdmates munched hay in the feeding racks. As the others finished up and drifted away, she remained, and spotting her still there I applauded her thorough tongue. No waste in that rack this morning!

She saw me and lowed as I walked up to the house for my own breakfast, and it was then that something struck me as odd about her. I didn't put my finger on it until I had the spoon to my mouth: Nellie had been standing awfully still to have been eating. Cows usually toss and sort the hay spread for them, showering each other with chaff as they strive to snap up the choicest grasses first. Quickly checking again, I saw the cow still at her post as if rooted to the spot.

What she'd been telling me before, without making a fuss about it, was that she was stuck fast, having managed to twist her head just right to get her beautiful curved horns into a narrow opening in the racks - and then having failed to execute the reverse maneuver. I took a saw to one of the two-by-fours, all the while profusely apologizing for my obtuseness.

As a herd, the cows often tell us to expect the unexpected before we see or hear anything amiss. Ears forward, nostrils wide, they point en masse toward some horizon, almost always looking delighted at the release from their routine. A recent high point for them was Charlie's first excursion across the pasture on his just-acquired mountain bike - a spectacle that so riveted the herd, one might have thought an alien invasion was unfolding down the field.

But their finest entertainment came the day our wild black Percheron, Ben (whom they consider a large, grass- guzzling nuisance), uprooted the fence post he'd been tied to and dragged it bouncing between his legs up the pasture. If Charlie hadn't caught sight of the horse thundering off, post in tow, he had only to look at the cows to know there was breaking news.

Our goat Cynthia uses direct, if oval, eye contact to speak to us when the occasion demands. The first time she turned her steady bead our way, we promptly bid for and bought her from an auction ring, though that was the last thing we'd come to do. (Why she chose us, we'll never know, but she could have done worse.)

The latest example of her power-point transmission came the other day, just as I'd settled on the porch swing with a book after filling the water tanks. The goat - a 10-year resident now - emerged from the front of the former milk room and simply stared up at me, her entire body exuding a rather annoyed impatience.

"Oh, now what?" I thought, knowing better than to ignore her. As I neared the barn, the sound of running water completed the message. I'd left the hose on and Cynthia, bless her heart, thought I should know.

Directly or indirectly our animals shower us with their special knowledge, curiosities, desires, and urgent behests.

They must wonder, sometimes, why we're so slow to catch on. But when we tune in just right, we could swear they were speaking our language.

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