Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
And on that farm we had … three cows!
When we got the two calves, our youngest daughter wanted to name them. My husband explained that we shouldn’t name our food because we might get too attached. She insisted. So without further thought, he declared the black calf “STEAK” and our little red calf “RIBS.” He told the kids that he didn’t want anyone confused as to the purpose of these cows.
I had never had cows. I was very excited to have these beasts lazily munching on the grass and looking at us with those sloe eyes as we mowed and did yard work. I liked the thought of feeding my family beef that had eaten nothing that they weren’t supposed to and had no hormones or injections that were questionable. But I had no idea what trouble two cows can be.
As these cute little cows grew into 1300 pound beasts, they became a royal pain in my side. First of all, cows are not the smartest of animals. My husband was doing work in the front yard next to the creek and was very concerned about the huge cliff-like drop off that the spring runoff created. When I asked why he was so obsessed, he explained that cows aren’t the smartest tools in the shed, and would fall off. Fall Off!? What?! I asked why they would fall off … didn’t they see the drop? And why wouldn’t they just use the path down to the creek? And I thought that there shouldn’t be much falling for these creatures. After all, they have four legs and should be way more stable on those legs than me, and even clumsy old me didn’t fall off the bank into the creek (my dad calls me Grace because he says I have none)! Harrumph, I thought.
Also, those cows were skittish. I had to work hard to get those cows used to me coming into the field and into the barn to feed them. It took months of coaxing with sweet grain to get them used to me and allow me to ease up to them. Not that I wanted them to be like dogs: I just wanted them a lot calmer than two large dust devils running through the field when the time came to load them into a trailer for their first and only ride to town. And Ribs really never calmed down as she got older, but just stayed crazy. She did not want Steak to get anywhere close to me and would head butt her when Steak got too close to eat the sweet grain out of my hand. She kept them both agitated.
Over the course of two years, these cute little calves turned into destructive, demanding beasts. They broke through fences. They trampled gardens. They kicked out the barn door. They were much more demanding work than those huge breathing statues I had envisioned. And they sometimes had to have their water medicated. To do that we had to block access to the creek so that they would only drink the medicated water in a trough. They usually kicked and beat up more things than usual when that happened. That was such a pain that I threatened to build a bonfire in the back and drive those crazy cows right through it and have a barbecue party right then and there, handing out barbecue sauce to any who wanted to join in.
One winter night during an unusually cold, icy spell when all was frozen, they got as close to the house as possible and mooed over the fence, over and over. My husband is a very sound sleeper and didn’t budge. I am a very light sleeper and couldn’t sleep with all that mooing. So up I get in my long flannel nightgown, throw on a coat, ram boots onto my feet, and stomp out through the gate to see why they are mooing. Poor things: their water was frozen over in the watering trough, but I think to myself, “What creature needs to drink in the middle of an icy night to the point of mooing every other minute at the house?” There I was, standing in the field kicking through the ice with my big boots while the cows waited close by as if they were supervising, my flannel nightgown flying in the frigid wind. It is then that my husband awakens, throws up the sash, and calls instructions out the window at me. Well, if looks could kill, I guess it was a good thing that it was a moonless night and he couldn’t see my face, so that he would live to see another day.
My son came home from school one day and asked us if we wanted another cow. He explained that his friend’s mother had won a calf in a school auction (remember, we live in the country) and had taken it home, thinking that it would fit right in with her four dogs and just live in the front yard and keep the grass cut. Little did she know how little food that would be for a growing steer. Poor Norman (yes, that was his name) thought he was a dog. He came when you called him. He ate dog biscuits. He loved to have his head scratched. And when all the dogs ran to the edge of the trampoline to throw their paws up on the edge and bark at the jumping kids, Norman did too. Until one day when he was quite large and he threw his hoofs up on the side and they got tangled in the springs on the side, making him fall, taking the four dogs, the trampoline, and the child on that trampoline with them. They were all a tangled mess.
When we brought Norman to our house, the girls, as we called the two female calves, did not enjoy his company. He was used to lots of interaction and they were not. They bullied him mightily. Until, that is, Norman discovered his horns that had started to grow. When he found out how he could control those girls with his horns, bossy Ribs was dethroned and from that day on he was truly the boss of the yard. And that is when I realized that the name BOSSIE for cows is not so much a name as a description: these cows KNOW they are large and heavy, and they DO wield their weight around to get what they want. They are bossy!
Norman was so enamored with the discovery of his new horns that he started using them on everything: fences, our truck, even bees in the meadow. He chased our daughter the whole length of the meadow one day just because he could. And then one day he charged my husband. My husband happened to have a piece of a 2×4 in his hand while repairing something. He turned around and walloped Norman right between the eyes! We could hear that thunk from where we were at the back of the house. That stopped Norman in his tracks and humbled him: He snuffled along my husband’s neck as an apology. From then on he only used his horns on Steak and Ribs and the fence posts and the fences and truck.
One day my husband deemed it necessary to de-worm the cows and give them shots.
We herded the them all into the cow pen. Remember that I told you that one of the girls was wild. She never outgrew that. So we had two cows that wanted to be good but one that ran around and upset the other two and got everyone in a state of mild frenzy. We shooed one cow down the cow chute and successfully got it taken care of.
Ribs wasn’t as easy: she was a spaz! We had to put a noose around her neck to control her enough to just get her into the chute. Two down, one to go.
Norman just didn’t want to go down the chute. My husband suggested that I go into the pen and herd him toward the chute, and since Norman wasn’t the crazy cow I agreed. But remember that Ribs had gotten him riled up. He really just wanted to get out of that pen and back into the field where the other two stood there staring at him with an intensity that could have bent spoons. I think they were telepathically daring him to get the heck out of there.
He ran around and around the pen, avoiding me like a two year old child about to get ear drops. I thought that I ALMOST got him calm and inching toward the chute … and then … he turned and ran right toward me! Having a 1500 pound animal run directly at you can be frightening! And then it happened.
He jumped OVER me! He sailed right over my head and the fence behind me, right into the neighbor’s pool yard! It was like watching a slow motion movie. When he jumped, I watched as if from outside my body. He soared through the air gracefully, and my head followed in an arc like watching a balloon floating away, my mouth hanging open.
Everyone was yelling but I could not make out any of it. But with Norman now standing on the other side of the fence with a satisfied yet confused look on his face, I tuned back into the words being yelled. And then I hear my husband.
“Why did you let him go over you?” is the first thing I hear.
“LET him?! How was I supposed to know that a cow can jump over me AND a fence?” I asked incredulously.
“Didn’t you ever hear about the cow that jumped over the moon?” my husband asks as he runs toward the fence and climbs over it to get to Norman.
“Of course I heard of it!” I yell back, “But I thought it was a children’s FAIRY TALE written by someone who drank way too much! Who would have thought a 1500 pound animal could ACTUALLY clear a five-foot-four woman and a fence! And how am I supposed to STOP that 1500 pound animal?”
“You should have just put your hands over your head so that you look taller.”
Well, frankly, I had never even thought of that.
So we moved the mini round-up into the neighbor’s yard to shoo this beast back to our side. Luckily there was a people-gate along that fence line and Norman really did just want to be back with his girls, so he went fairly easily. Much easier than getting him down that chute!
One day a man knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to sell my cows. I didn’t even blink and asked, “Will you load them into the trailer and haul them away or do we have to do it?” “I will.” “Then you have a deal. Come and get them.” And I was snickering inside my head because he did NOT know what kind of crazy that Ribs was.
When my husband got home from work I told him that I sold the cows. “You sold my cows?!?” He was both glad and disappointed: he had been looking forward to eating those cows, but was glad that they sold and we didn’t have to try to get them into a trailer.
Every now and then we’ll bring up Norman and Steak and Ribs and chuckle at the antics of those big dumb beasts. We chuckle at how naïve I was about having cows and my expectations and surprises. When my husband brings up having cows on our new farm, I utter just one word: “Ribs.” And then we eat some for dinner.
- Maura White grew up on the Pacific Coast in a sleepy beach town and has lived all over the country, as well as in Asia. What a change it was for her to move to the country, and she uses humor to help her make the adjustment. She and her husband are working to make their farm, Double Star Bar Farms, a successful family farm. She keeps busy with her stained glass business, which you can check out at www.southernstainedglass.com. You can read more of her stories at whitem4.wordpress.com. She keeps saying “You can take the girl away from the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean out of the girl!”