The CEO, Bookworm, and I headed out in the Gator so we could get up some cows on Sunday afternoon, about 4:30. It was hot, but not ridiculously hot – 85F, with a little breeze – and the Gator is open, so when you’re going 15mph it feels like you’re speeding, and the wind blows your hair back, even if you are wearing a Virginia Beef hat borrowed from your husband. We went to the barn lot, down the gravel road lined on both sides with fences hung with honeysuckle vines (smelling heavenly on the hot wind!), and in through the Seven-Acre Field, calling the cows and bull that were in that field out of it. The grass was tall and headed out in that field, so that grass seeds kept flying at us, stinging my arms, as the Gator went through it.
What The CEO needed was a particular portion of the herd to move from one field through another to the small field he uses as a staging area for the barn lot. The barn lot is largely dirt, through years of use, and it holds a disused barn and the working pens and headchute. Generally the cows don’t want to go in there, because it’s not full of grass, and of course it probably smells like cow distress. In the same way that it’s difficult to entice the cat to get into the cat carrier when the only place she ever goes in it is to the vet’s office, where someone will poke her and prod her and mess with her teeth and give her shots, it’s hard to coax cows to go through a gate into a dirt field where they’ve been poked and prodded and given shots. They’re not that dumb.
The cows started the afternoon in a small field that’s referred to as “Weston’s,” so called because The CEO’s father’s first cousin Weston used to live in the house that adjoins it. Weston is a Presbyterian minister, he’s 78 years old, and he hasn’t lived in that house for probably 50 years, but it’s Weston’s Field by long habit.
When we got to Weston’s Field, The CEO started calling the cows to see if he could just call them into the next field without chasing anything. “Whooo, cows, come on. Whooo, cows, come on.” He dropped me off in what’s called the Back Side with a sorting stick (a three-foot length of black plastic pipe) near the gate and told me, “Stand here and don’t let ’em go down the hill. Make ’em go that way,” pointing toward the wooded area at the top of the hill. He and Bookworm went into Weston’s Field in the Gator, making sure that no animal had been left behind, as cows began coming into the Back Side.
Sometimes they’ll come willingly into a new field, because they’ve come to associate the “whooo, cows” call with fresh grass. I like to imagine that they’re thinking, “Hey, they just opened up a new section of the buffet! Come on, girls, let’s go!” In this case, they came happily into the new field and immediately started munching. If you’ve never been close to a group of 60 large animals, all munching at the same time, it’s interesting. It’s loud.
Cows are interesting, anyway: for one thing, they’re big. Most of ours are of mixed breed, what’s called a “commercial herd.” In our area of the country, that generally means a mixture of Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Charolais, and/or Gelbvieh genetics, and we’ve got elements of all those breeds in our herd. Most of our cows are black because the coat color, from Angus genetics, is dominant. However, because Simmentals and Gelbvieh are multicolored, Herefords are red with white faces, and Charolais are white, the dominant black coat doesn’t always win. We’ve got red cows, brown cows, dull yellow cows, white cows, even grayish and orange cows, making up about 25% of the whole herd, as you might expect if you remember your Mendelian genetics from high school: the incidence of dominant phenotype is about 75%, with recessive phenotypes presenting about 25% of the time. The white face of the Hereford breed comes out fairly often, with white patches on the faces of black cows. (My father-in-law had about five color designations for cows: black, brown, red, white, and yaller. Yaller could refer to anything from yellow to beige through gray to that odd orange color.)
We also happen to own about 15 Beefmaster cows, purchased secondhand from an enormous ranch facility in the western states that went bankrupt. Beefmaster is an acknowledged breed on its own, consisting of 50% Brahman, 25% Hereford, and 25% Shorthorn and especially well-adapted to the dry, hot conditions in the western US. They’re good big cows that usually have big healthy calves, and they’re good mamas – but they’re flighty and sometimes aggressive. They have independent streaks, which is somewhat contrary to the herd instinct that tends to be pretty strong in domesticated cattle. Cattle are like deer and antelope and wildebeest and all those herd animals that you’ve probably seen documentaries about on Wild Kingdom: wolves or dingoes or cheetahs cutting an animal out of the herd and hounding it until it’s alone and exhausted. Cows are no dummies when it comes to safety, and they like to stay together… unless they’re Beefmasters.
But back to what I was saying: cows are big. A full-grown commercial cow will generally weigh about 1100 to 1400 pounds. They have big liquid eyes and ridiculously long eyelashes and you can see the muscles move in their flanks as they walk, and if a cow managed to bump into you, you’d probably fall down. Our cows tend toward calmness, except for the Beefmasters, and unless they have newborn calves to protect, are not prone to aggressive behavior. (Of course there’s always a couple of wild, nervous ones, but by and large they tend to be pretty calm.) They have big teeth and big jaws, and the munching sounds are loud when they eat, whether it’s grass, hay, or silage.
Bulls weigh in at anywhere from 1800 to 2200 pounds, depending on breed, age and condition, and they can be five to six feet tall at the shoulder, making some of them as tall at the head as NBA players. Most of our bulls – we have six on the farm, and two more bull calves that won’t start earning their keep for another year or so – are purebred Angus, and although they’re more aggressive than cows, they are relatively gentle. We don’t have any of those “Beware of the bull” signs posted; they tend to ignore humans unless they think they’re getting access to fresh pasture or hot babes. (True bull factoid that inordinately irritates me, because of the correlation to human male sexuality: Bulls like cows. They really, really like cows – all cows, regardless of the color of their coats or the size of their udders. But they love heifers. We’ve had relatively calm-natured bulls plow right through barbed wire fences to get to a field full of young cows.)
So these cows came into the Back Side and immediately started to munch. They kept grabbing mouthfuls as Bookworm and I walked behind them, calling things like, “Cows, move!” and “Let’s go, ladies!” Then a few of them took off into the pond, and it was a pain to get them out of the water and moving forward again. Then the vanguard got spooked and headed down the hill, away from the gate into the Seven-Acre field, and we had to let them run awhile and get calmed down before getting behind them again and driving them up the hill toward the gate.
Here’s another thing about cows: they may look really slow and stupid, but they can run fast. We’re not talking racehorse fast here, but definitely faster-than-humans fast. Bookworm can almost keep up with them, but then she’s in great shape. A good sprinter, which she’s not, might be able to outmatch a cow over a short distance.
Eventually we did get the cows into the Seven-Acre field, and The CEO said to us, “I’ve got to go open the gate into the barn lot. I’ll be back.” So Bookworm and I stood on top of the field and swatted at bugs and panted (me more than her), while The CEO wrestled with the gate. We couldn’t quite see what was wrong with it; all we could see was that it wasn’t moving and he was doing something to it. The cattle went through their regular roll call, cows bawling out for their calves and calves bawling, “Mom! Hey, Mom!” and then, once they realized all were present and accounted for and nobody was chasing them, they settled down to munch grass, standing in the small area of shade under a black walnut tree.
The afternoon had slid into early evening, and the sky had gone a softer blue. A breeze stirred the hair about our foreheads, bringing with it the weedy, astringent odor of trampled herbage and a faint whiff of honeysuckle from the fencerow. Bookworm whirred her sorting stick in the air, for something to do, and from the Whittaker Woods field, we could hear a woodpecker absurdly loud in its pursuit of bugs. Birds sang. The breeze blew about us again, this time bearing the animal smell of cattle with the hot-bread smell of grass seeds drying.
Cows munched. We swatted at bugs. Wind blew, birds sang, the woodpecker thocked at his tree again. It was peaceful.
And then The CEO opened the gate and came back up the hill toward us in the Gator, and it was off to the races again, driving cows along the fence to the corner and then down the hill toward the gate. I’ve done this before when the cattle get to the corner and run down the hill and up the other side, and then they get to the gate corner and sheer off, going the other way. The Seven-Acre field is relatively small, but if you find yourself chasing a couple dozen tons of animal around it, it’s plenty big. However, this time it worked as it was supposed to work, and the cows went through the gate into the barn lot.
So after much congratulatory chatter, we got into the Gator and headed home, down by the Old Homeplace, by the spring, down the gravel lane I am now calling Allée des Chévrefeuilles, and turned the corner for home. The sky had gone periwinkle blue, and my clothes were wet with sweat, and the air-conditioned house felt like a little piece of heaven. We ate dinner very late, after our showers, and stumbled to bed early.
The next day there would be another bunch of cattle to move.