A clever cow of a certain age

Jennifer, approaching her 20th birthday in February, receives special treatment on our farm. As senior bovine and great-great grandmother of the youngest members of our small post-milking herd of eight, she is doted on, and every tawny inch the matriarch - and wilier than you'd expect a cow to be.

She knows just where to meet me secretly for her special portions of grain and premium hay while the others chomp on their bales of orchard grass. We have to do things this way. If you ask the other cows, they think they're all deserving - break one bale of clover-alfalfa blend in plain sight. and a melee ensues. Thus Jennifer and I have our own private little schematic. I need only look her way and lock eyes with her. She swivels her ears forward and makes her way around the corncrib to the old turkey shed for her high-energy, gourmet offering. Seniority has its benefits.

She eventually ambles back to the main barn for the filler hay, but this time of year she finds the entranceway step from the barn lot up onto the concrete floor unappealing.

The cows mill about the place much of a winter's day, leaving it mucky and unstable below the slab. A good hard freeze adds to the challenge. Rather than negotiate the mire or frozen rubble to the step, Jennifer often hangs back outside the barn until I bring an armful of hay to her.

Anticipating a recent winter storm, I decided to take the edge off that step so our elderly cow could more easily move into the sanctuary of the barn. I began hauling buckets of sawdust from the portable mill outside the former milk parlor to fill in the hoof-muddled mire, thereby creating a dry sloping ramp up to the barn. Jennifer watched with interest.

Many, many bucket loads later I paused, sweating despite the cold air, to admire the new access ramp. Jennifer and I locked eyes once more. Then she picked her way ever so carefully around the ramp, and through the one remaining strip of deep mud to the step. Glancing my way reproachfully, she entered the barn the old way, one slow, tentative hoof at a time.

There was, it seems, something deeply suspect about the new terra firma - even though she'd witnessed its creation by the very hands that deliver her special rations.

Unwilling to let her have this prejudicial last word (so typically bovine), I filled in the last of the entranceway with more sawdust, completely exhausting the pile that had built up over weeks of planing storm-toppled trees into lumber. There is no avoiding the ramp now, and having ceased delivering her hay to her outside the barn, I was gratified to see Jennifer adapt to the new footing at last.

But she remains stubbornly independent and uncannily attuned to what comes naturally on the farm, in ways I can't help admiring.

When I've looked for her among the herd on the summer pasture, she's often not among them in the thick grass, but off by herself, browsing along a hedgerow for a special green that only she, from her long experience, knows is there. She has always calved on her own, quite capably in some private bower, and often enough to have created a whole herd as her legacy.

Today as the cows collected in the barn at dusk with a weather change in the air, Jennifer was again not among them. I found her lying in a sheltered nook, soaking up the last thin rays of winter sun - as if knowing to absorb every last drop of its goodness and warmth before it was lost.

I'll continue to give this cow special treatment - but I also trust the instincts and experience she brings to bear on her own behalf. They've served her well these past two decades.

A little help from a deeply indebted friend isn't always the ticket, but like her, I know what I have to do for my own satisfaction.

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