Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Personality of a Cow!

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Similar to the cows we owned, but not so much white.

After reading Jellyhead’s delightful posting about her family’s idiosyncratic dog, Millie, I started to think about the ‘personalities of animals I have known’. We’ve never been a family for keeping pets, much to our children’s disgust, so the animals I had most contact with were our herd of dairy cows.

When I say ‘our’ I mean the cows that my father owned, and every member of the family had to do their share of the milking. I possibly milked more cows than my siblings did because I actually spent nine years at home, working on the farm, after leaving school.

It’s nearly 40 years since my late parents gave up dairying, so we didn’t have the most modern of facilities by today's standards, but we did use milking machines and didn’t have to milk the cows by hand, as my mother had done about 80 years ago.

As Jelly pointed out, animals seem to have their own personalities, and these can differ widely, even within the same animal type or breed. Our herd, which never numbered more than about 85, consisted mainly of Holsteins (then called Friesians), with a smattering of Jerseys, Shorthorns and other crossbreeds. Many of the cows were born and reared on the farm.

There is often a well-defined hierarchy in a herd of cows. Usually one cow will lead the rest of the herd, with her ‘subordinates’ following close behind, and so it goes right back to the inevitable stragglers, and the odd rogue who may well decide to leave the herd to see if pastures really are ‘greener on the other side’. The lead cow will be the first into or out of the paddock (field) and lead them all round to the cowshed for milking.

Unlike today, where many sheds operate on a rotating platform where 40 or so cows can be milked at once, or other sheds where 2 rows of about 10 cows stand rear end to a central pit where the farmer walks up and down attaching the suction cups to the cows' udders, and removing them a few minutes later, our shed could only hold 6 cows at a time. The cow would come in from the yard at the front of the shed and walk into a bail, which was then closed behind her head. After each cow was milked, the bail was opened and she walked forwards and out through a passageway to another yard where she would remain until all of the cows were milked. They were then herded back to their paddock.

The personality of many of the cows was so dominant that to ignore it was to do so at our own peril. For instance, some cows always wanted to be in the first 6 into the shed whilst others took it as an infringement of liberty if they were brought in whilst any other cows remained in the yard; they always wanted to be last. Some cows would only go into a left hand bail, and others only into a right hand one. A few would only go into one particular bail, and others wouldn’t go into a bail against a wall. Most cows stood quietly whilst being milked but an odd one or two fussed and fidgeted. In our shed, as soon as the bail closed behind the cow’s head, she would be leg ‘roped’ using a chain with a rubber-covered hook on one end which was slipped around the cow’s leg, just above the hoof. Most cows didn’t mind having their leg secured in this way, but we had one that objected strongly and would stand on three legs with the fourth thrashing wildly trying to dislodge the hook, which she usually did. We resorted to tying her leg with a rope, after which she would stand quietly, although you had to be careful how you approached her to tie on the rope or else you would feel the full force of a flying kick.

The cows were usually given some dry feed such as oats or chaff to eat whilst being milked. Feeding the cows was often the first job that the children learned to do. (Sometime ago I wrote a story about my experiences with this chore, which I think I posted to the blog, but as I can’t locate it on the blog, I’ll repost it in a day or two.)

All of the cows had names as it wasn’t a large herd. Most farmers now use a numbered ear tag to identify each animal, which is certainly more accurate when you may have a lot of well nigh identical cows, which can only be distinguishable by such minor details as the shape of an ear or a small scar on a leg, etc. We tended to use names starting with the same letter for all the descendants in one family. At one time we had about 18 cows all beginning with the letter ‘N’, all progeny of Nancy, who was 20 years old when we sold her – a venerable age indeed. Sometimes the name also described the animal. One was called Nuisance because she had a habit of either climbing through or jumping over fences. Two cows were named Winter and Spring. We bought them from the saleyards and one calved that same night 31 August – last day of Winter, and the other calved the next day – first day of Spring.

There is probably much more I could write about the cows, which were sometimes the bane of my life as they were there, needing to be milked at both ends of the day, every day of the year. I realise that this lifestyle is unfamiliar to many people, so if you want to ask any questions, I’ll be more than happy to answer them – if I can remember back that far …. lol.


Roberto Iza Valdes said...

Bless you, it's beautiful.

jellyhead said...

Now see, I knew dogs and cats had distinct personalities, but cows, too? Wow! My mum's cows just seem to wander and eat in much the same way, but perhaps, if I asked her, my mother would tell a different story!

A lovely post!

meggie said...

Oh I did enjoy this post! It reminded me of my first real boy friend's family who were Sharemilkers, & I would go over to help rinse out the bails, & yard after milking. And my girlfriend & I would help out her brother-in-law when he milked. I know all the cows have such individual personalities, & so do sheep!

Lee-ann said...

O! Alice,
I am not that fond of cows one tried to kill me when I was about 6 (well I think it tried to kill me) or was it licking me to death who knows I was only 6! lol lol lol lol

Now stop laughing!! I am a country girl truely I am.

What a great post this is of yours, you made me smile. I had a friend in the Adelaide hills who's family had cows, this post bought back a lot of good memories about that long lost friend for me.


No Rain said...

Oh, this brings back memories. I, too, grew up on a dairy farm, and remember some cows well. My dad had a herd of 80 Holsteins, and we had 11 with names, based on their various characterics or personalities. "Dragbag" was my favorite. Funny how so many decades pass and although I can't remember what I did yesterday, I still can recall the names of those cows.

Kerri said...

Holy cow Alice! I'm so glad to see you writing again, and what a great subject (and a great job)! It really is amazing how much personality some cows have, while others may not have much at all. Oh yes, the leaders and the followers, the scaredycats and the brazen rebels, the kickers and the docile, the friendly and the timid....
Ours all had names and we did the same thing as you with the daughters a lot of the time..same first initial.
Ross says if you and Richard will come over and help milk he'd willingly put on another herd :)
How about it?
Perhaps you could bring some applesauce when you come :)
Thanks for the enjoyable read!

Alice said...

Kerri and Ross - I don't think Richard has ever milked a cow, and it may be too late to 'teach an old dog new tricks'.

As for bringing applesauce, I think a few litres of grease for the creaking knees and aged limbs might be need more.

I thought this post would bring back a few memories for you.

Val said...

What an interesting post, both about cows having different personalities and the info on milking them. As a non-farm person I have no knowledge on this important activity. Fun to read about those cows. Fits in nicely with the photos of the artistic cows Merle posted recently.