Iowa Cattle Talk

`NO, I will not go under the bridge,'' said the young black calf. ``My Momma never told me to. And I will not go!'' That is what the young calf told me, in precise and clear body language. Wallowing in frustration, I sat on the tractor in the pasture and watched him break with his buddies and avoid the gaping interior of the highway bridge once more!

It was the tag end of what we hoped was the last of the drought, and we were moving cattle from one field to another. We needed more green grass and a better supply of water.

The trip entailed driving the cattle over a half-mile of dry Iowa pasture to a high embankment and a bridge under the road - the state line - into Missouri. There they would proceed through a woods, along a fence, to a field of ungrazed clover and a pond. This lay directly across the road from the barn which they had left.

The cows knew their way well. Over the years they had traveled the course often. Several of them regularly kicked up their heels in some delight at the transition. But to the young calves who had never made the trek, the space under the bridge was somewhat awesome.

Besides the excitement of their mothers' haste to get through to the other side, the pushing and shoving, there was also a pool of muddy black water from a recent surprising rain. Most of the calves had clung closely to their mother's thighs. All but the smallest had been persuaded to proceed into the mysteries beyond - but Sudsy refused.

His mother had temporarily forgotten him; her occasional routine bawling was subsiding. Right at the edge of the entrance to the black hole and the water, Sudsy darted aside - and said ``No!'' There are some folk who feel that animals do not think, or calculate much. But they certainly can convey their feelings when they suddenly stiffen up and take a firm stand!

I had delegated myself to pursue any laggards; already my tractor and I had pursued the calf along several short stretches of woven wire which, out of fear, he was threatening to jump through. If he made that, there were cars and people on the road above that might endanger him.

I shut off the tractor engine, sat, thought, and waited. He would return to the bridge; I would give him time to calm down and change his mind. I would hope!

He crossed the ditch and came, but decided to return to the barn. That was where he had seen his mother last; he knew how to get back home!

So did I! I had about had it! He was extending the distance between barn and bridge by racing along more and longer fences, up and down the sloping hills.... Over and over, he refused to go under the bridge at the desperate last moment!

The sun was hiding behind the hills, letting darkness in. I was worried. Across the highway, in our house, the lights were on. Doubtless the rest of the cattle were safely ensconced in the field around; and my daughter and husband were expecting me in for supper. Work over! Calf not missed!

Not missed even by Sudsy's mother - a black cow with a white face named Oreo after the cookie - a few bawls rose from afar, but she seemed unworried.

SUDSY (so named for the soapy white splotch about his mouth and chin) was worn out. He looked limp, as though he'd lost many pounds and most of his spirit, while running. For the fourth or fifth time, he headed doggedly toward the barn.

I pitied him terribly. He was so set in his mind. Yet when he got where he wanted to go, there would be no mother. Only a stubborn little calf bewildered by an empty valley and intimidating hills. It was doubtful if I could even induce him through the lot gate, to the shelter of the barn.

I turned off the tractor again, an act of finality almost; perhaps for the night.

The calf had stopped dead-still now. He had seen nothing to help him. Nor had I. Dusk was rapidly fading into gray mist ... . The calf had turned his back even on the barn. He was facing hopelessly into an eerie moon. He seemed unwilling to move toward the only alternative he saw - which was to wander without purpose, evading me. I let him rest.

Then strangely, suddenly, there was sound. Bawling seemed to increase, to descend on us from everywhere. From the fields where the cows were, from the bottomland, and a distant farm; from the sky and the moon! And none of the bawlings were like his mother's at all!

I resigned myself to dim philosophy! It was as though the calf and I were like the human race; as though we were in need, and everything had turned its back on us. The sounds said they were willing to help someone, but were not for us.

Then - I must have been impelled by movement in the lot beyond the nearby corn crib - I jumped from my tractor and began to run toward the gate, to open it.

One cow, Shiva, had rounded the corncrib and quite calmly was coming toward us. She was headed for the pond tank and a drink of water but, in passing, she called out to the calf softly.

``Moo-ou, ... Moo-ouu.''

It was the gentlest, most kindly and understanding moo I have ever heard. It was like that of some Great Mother who loves all troubled children, no matter to whom they belong.

A descending note in it touched the calf like the nuzzling of a loving nose. Touched even me, stopped in my tracks, afraid to stir lest I affect deleteriously a critical moment! For the calf did not move. I didn't dare open the gate yet, lest I scare him away.

Shiva ``moo-ued'' again, strode to the pond tank, and drank. The calf suddenly perceived a solution for his problems in his own kind, and walked toward her. I ran to the gate, and pulled it open, just enough to let a small calf through.

SHIVA and the calf walked toward the gate, the fence between them, keeping a nice pace with each other. Sudsy joined her inside the lot, and they strode off together. I drove the tractor in and closed the gate tight.

Then, as if to demonstrate how human cows can be, I heard Shiva bawl again as I was crossing the road to go home. Her bawl sounded like an answer to the calf's mother, Oreo, who (I think) had finally awakened to the fact that she had left her calf behind. ``MOO!'' bawled Shiva. A firm, stern, open-mouthed bawl, containing at least an iota of compassion! A relieved silence followed.

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