Grass Cattle Wars

As someone who’s worked with livestock and animals for a quarter of a century, I’m always amazed by the range of reaction from people when I run down the rolls of types of animals I’ve dealt with. One of the more perplexing reactions is “Wow, you must have some really cute animal stories.”

Pause and think about this one.

I don’t know about you, but most of my animal stories involve blood, pus, urine, manure, and other assorted bodily fluids, excretions, and contortions. Cute stories? Not so much. Sure, there’s moments, like when the two day old baby chicks chase the laser light, that are cute, but mostly our dinner table conversations start out with, “Dang y’all, this was so gross…” So a nice story is a rarity, but I finally have one and thought to share it. What does it have to do with books? Not a gosh darn thing, but it makes me smile every time I tell it.

My herd of thirty Simmental cows spends leisurely summers on pasture, guided along by temporary fencing. On one particular pasture, we let them out to graze in the morning and bring them in at night in case deer take down the fence, so we don’t end up with cows running feral down on the river flats. I’ve had some of the older cows for over a decade, so they know the drill by now. They also know I’m the gatekeeper, the giver of fresh pasture. So this particular day, when I strung a dummy wire across the mouth of the lane to keep the cows in the barn yard, the herd, cows, calves, and adolescent females, lined up to watch me walk down to move the fences so they could have access to fresh grass, as usual. I moved fences, returned to the barn yard, dropped the dummy gate, pulled it out of the way and the entire herd, large, blinking black eyes, continued to stand at the gateway and stare at me.

It was a warm day, so the black cows were panting. One of the friendlier older cows (who I can always tell is pregnant when she seeks me out for scratches) came over and let me rub her tail. The rest continued to watch, so intent in their staring that it became a little unnerving. I squatted down and took the opportunity to look everyone over. Clear eyes, erect ears, clean(ish) backsides. No one lame. No one lethargic. Just standing there. Staring.

I stood up slowly and, still talking to them in a sing-songy, upbeat tone like always, began to walk around behind them. All thirty animals wheeled en masse to follow me, facing me straight on, still mellow. No one was being aggressive, but this was still pretty bizarre. While they’re used to people and usually laid back and easy going, my cows are livestock, not pets.

I continued to circle around them, at last doing a full loop, all of them still following, but maintaining their distance. They weren’t trying to chase me, hurt me, or acting otherwise hostile, so I didn’t quite know what to think about their stunt. At last, as I neared the place where the dummy gate had been, the steer (a castrated male) made a couple steps toward me and I took a couple steps back. He followed me, and then stopped. The old cow too made a step, and then stopped. On a whim, I walked past the place where the gate had been and called in a normal speaking voice, “Come baas,” the universal cattle call. With that, the herd stepped past the gate and ran off down the lane to find their fresh grass, leaving a trail of green “grass” manure in their wake. I laughed and shook my head. Apparently, all they’d needed was my “permission” to leave their enclosure. Who says you can’t train cows?

Axie Barclay is a Michigan writer with a cow-habit. Having discovered the joys and potential for growth in alternative agriculture, she quests ever longer and harder for ways to combine farming and writing into a business. When not milking cows, making disgruntled noises at the latest disgusting thing the heeler dogs dredge up, riding horses, or keeping the fence up around her small beef herd, she’s holed up reading an eclectic array of books or tapping out pages. When not working, she enjoys kicking back with her honey, family, and friends at a bonfire with some beers. Chat her up on Twitter and Facebook, /axieb, or where she delves into literature and agriculture with a relish… and occasionally ketchup. Soon to be homemade.