Thursday, March 15, 2007

Paul's Letter About the Cows

My blogpal Paul left a comment to "Wee Calfie Remembers" with so many conversational threads that I thought I'd turn it into a regular post. Paul's edited comments are italicized.

By now you would have already given thought to "The Cattle Whisperer" then. Do they need that?

Cattle respond to the emotions around them. Once out in the steading I was getting angry with my husband and raised my voice, and then we both looked and saw that the cattle were becoming visibly more agitated. A calm voice can soothe them and moving slowly and patiently are usually best. My husband says, "Never hurry cattle when they are going in the direction you want them to be going." Some say classical music has a calming effect on cattle. Even if not, I'd enjoy it, so maybe next time I work with the cattle, I'll give it a try and let you know.

They seem so calm - normally.

I think calm is a pretty good description. They are herd animals and ruminants, so if they have food to chew on and company, they tend to look and act contented.

Mothers (especially first time mothers and certain breeds) can be wild right after birth, but this usually passes after a couple days. We have a Belgian blue cow who just gave birth a couple days ago and she was quite agitated when we approached the pen where she was with her calf shortly after its birth. She considered going through the steel gate to run over my husband. Then I could see the look in her eyes as she thought about jumping over it. We walked away and then came back a few moments later to watch from a distance that the calf was sucking successfully. Mom doesn't have to like us just now; she just needs to like her calf and be able to feed him/her properly.

Of course then there are the stampedes. Do these happen often?

I think a full blown stampede a la big cattle drives such as on TV westerns are quite rare. The cattle can run at a faster than you want to see clip when they are startled. Since I have been here I have seen cattle running too quickly in the wrong direction only a couple times. Once I heard that some of our cattle out in the field were running scared. We speculate that a dog or a fox may have run over the field, but we don't know what prompted it.

A nearby neighbor on a croft (small farm) had a helicopter land in the field enxt to his cattle and they were very upset and agitated. What made it even worse was that the person who landed the helicopter (an official) was trying to keep our neighbor away from his cattle. This upset both the farmer and his cattle.

Sometimes animals get out onto the road and then sadly it is often people who seem more wild than the animals. Drivers don't stop or slow down and too few people these days seem to know how to handle animals. I thought when I got here that everyone would know about farming and animals, but that is not the case.

Not long ago on a particularly difficult part of the road south (narrow, curving, and going downhill), a lorry (truck) full of cattle ran off the road. That driver and one immediately following noted that there were fields close by where they could turn in the cattle safely, but officialdom refused to let them do it. As a result more than two dozen cattle had to die a slow death in terrifying circumstances or languish until a vet could dispatch them humanely several hours later stuck inside the lorry. I imagine that those officials were city folks who had never been around animals.

I did meet one on a river bank when I was about seventeen...we approached one and it sort of raised its head and we saw it had horns. Little stubby ones, but still...So we left. We didn't stampede ourselves, just backed away rather cautiously.

Cattle are curious. They will follow you more out of curiosity than anything else. If you move faster, then they move faster in order to keep up. My husband tells a story of how he had a little dog that he used to herd cattle. This tiny dog would go up near the cattle in the field and then just lie down in the field. As the cattle moved up to see what was going on, he moved back. They followed.

The little horns would probably do less damage than any of the other massive parts of the critter. A simple head butt from my Wee Calfie from a casual tossing of her head nearly gave me a concussion when she was still only about 100kg. Now that she is 5 times that, you can imagine what an affectionate rub could do to me. Trans-species communication has its challenges!

You're always told if you run from a dog it'll just run after you, so we figured cattle must have about the same instincts.

Temple Grandin (Animals in Translation) puts cattle and dogs in very different categories. She argues that dogs are predators. They are born with an instinct to chase and then they learn which of the many things they chase they can eat. Cattle are prey animals. They have an instinct toward avoiding anything that chases them, so when they go after you it is about curiosity and whether they need to worry about you.

Cattle often come to associate people with feeding, so they may also have been looking at you as "provider of hay" or "bringer of barley".

Now, if it sounds as if I am knowledgeable and implies that I have always been comfortable with large quadrupeds approaching me, let me come clean. The first time I was in the field with cattle and they began following me, I sang to sound braver than I felt--to them and to myself. This singing probably made them even more curious or perhaps they like Joan Baez songs. At any rate, I walked at a steady pace with the pounding of my heart threatening to drown out my song. Inside I was repeating, "they eat grass they eat grass they eat grass" and hoping that they wouldn't do I know not what to me. The second and third times were easier. And then I learned by watching what others did.

I would really hate the branding. Sounds pretty excruciating. Couldn't you just tattoo them or something?

Cattle aren't branded any more. I asked my husband if it hurt. He thought about it for awhile and thought that it probably did hurt a bit at the time but not much and not for long. Now each animal has a metal tag in its ear and at least one large plastic tag. The large plastic tag contains both a herd number (six digits) and an individual number (another six digits). Within a month of being born, a calf gets its ear tag with its numbers (you an see Calfie's tag in the photo on that post).

The numbers are assigned by the British Cattle Movement System to uniquely identify each and every animal. When the tags come, the animal also gets what is called a "passport" because each and every time the animal moves, a page of the passport needs to be updated. All this information is managed on an online database, so the current location and history of each and every animal is available both online and from their passport. We were recently audited to ensure that all our animals had their tags and all their passports were in order. No small task, but better than branding in so many ways!

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At 11:35 PM, Blogger Faith said...

awwww some of the blinking so called animal laws are so insane... that upset me about the cows having a long lingering death.. may them so called officialdoms have lingering bother for this... downright cruel, I hope their car seat trap their bullock bits!!


At 11:48 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

thanks for the interesting detail. Like so many city folk, I like to look at cows, but wouldn't know how to deal with them. When I was 7-8 I used to hang out with kids next door to my gran - when we thought the adults weren't looking we dared each other to ride the bull calves... the goal being to stay on as long as possible and to eventually land with as little ignominy as possible.

I'm pretty sure that this wasn't the right way to interact with them, LOL!

At 11:50 PM, Blogger Paul said...

You could do Wikopedia...

At 1:54 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...


Now -- don't the ear tags hurt?

And was that why the cattle in the wrecked truck couldn't be let out... because of passport issues?

At 12:19 AM, Blogger Rosie said...

Hayden introduced me to your blog and I'm happy to find you. This was a great post. I do dairy goats. I've been really wanting to get a few small jerseys but am told they can't handle the mountainous terrain of my farm. Wish I could find a nice dairy breed that could handle the steep inclines!

At 9:13 AM, Blogger scorrie said...

hi Rosie // this is the oldmanofhoy, husband of Landgirl // in New Zealnd the Jersey cow, tho usually depicted grazing lush green pastures, also grazed very steep high country in days gone by when every Kiwi tried to produce milk // they also are, in their native Jersey Island in the English Channel, grazing some very steep slopes// try them //

At 9:28 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Don't be to hard on them, Faith. They were in a tough spot and had to make the best decision they could with all the factors to consider.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Wow, Hayden! I admire your courage. How long could you stay on a bull? You have many talents.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, Paul, I never set out to get encyclopedic. I just want to satisfy folks's genuine curiosity for critters. And good questions deserve good answers. Thanks for stopping by my little part of this virtual world.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Cur, I love the way you think. I think ear tags hurt only in the way that piercing our own ears hurts for a little while. The connector for the ear tag is not big.
The cattle were not let out for fear that they would run amok on the road and get in the way of people and cars and things.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Rosie, thanks for stopping by. I asked my husband (who really could do Wikipedia of cattle) to comment. I'll look forward to hearing more about what you decide to do. I have been to Smoky Mountains. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I hope some of it manages to survive.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

landgirl, it was only the craziness of 7 yr old girls at loose ends in the fields, and young cattle being fattened through the summer for fall sale. They were relatively tame, but they didn't like us riding at all! Mostly they ran and jostled us off in that teeth-rattling gait. If we managed to hang on, they rubbed us up against a fence, scraping our shins until we scrambled/tumbled off. My friends' parents yelled at her if they saw us, because we were guilty of "running the fat off of the cattle!"

At 2:48 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Still on the cows are we? And here I went and said on my blog that yours isn't ONLY about cows...

I'll end up being forced to tell my other cow story; well actually I have two more. And neither is that amusing.

You and your husband must have Scottish accents? I love Scottish accents. Theona Richie's program on NPR drives me crazy when they play one too many - reils, is it? - but I don't get tired of her voice.

Oh, darn. I just read your profile again. Midwesterner transplant. But maybe not your husband?

Maybe if he has the accent you could get an NPR contract for a show about cattle. I bet people would listen to that if they listen to the one with all the reils. But maybe that's unreilistic.

At 8:10 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

OK, Paul, today--the weather! Or maybe sheep. My husband is very local. I'm a recent import. I used to love listening to Fiona Ritchie, too. I used to make my husband say "raspberry" when I wanted to hear that luxuriating of the rrs.
Reels, I think is the usual spelling, tho English words derived from Gaelic words are kind of iffy on the most correct spelling. Also strathspeys, meaning a river in a valley (strath) in full flow--spey or spate or some variation of that. Next time you hear one imagine a dark stream (colored by the surrounding peat) moving as fast as the music suggests. Photos just can't do it justice but I may give it a try.

At 12:20 AM, Blogger Paul said...

"Fiona?!" Well, that's a let down. I think "Theona's" much nicer. You really mean to say that for like - 20 years - I've been getting that wrong?

Hopefully it's the only thing...


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