Monday, April 04, 2005

Horned beasts

This has to be the weirdest-looking cow I've ever seen.

(Courtesy of Mr Sun, who made a rude joke out of it so OF COURSE I clicked the link.)

This reminds me of the time my father decided that hand-rearing bobby calves (calves less than 6 weeks old, often of milking stock) was a good money-making scheme. They would be castrated, dehorned, and raised as steers on the farm. Later they could be sold for more than they would have made as calves. (I think there was some sort of government subsidy scheme in place that guaranteed a profit.)

But we had to hand-feed them until they were weaned, in the back yard of our house in town. The idea was to raise two to four at a time, and gradually build up a small herd.

Have you ever tried to teach a calf to drink milk from a bucket? It's fantastically wasteful. They want to feed with their heads up, and so you have to train them to put their heads down. You dip your hand in the milk, let them suck your fingers, and gradually lower your hand into the bucket. Then the calf suddenly nudges the bucket violently and the whole thing tips over, knocking you over in the process and covering you with milk. It doesn't matter how tightly you grip the bucket, unless you're very quick this is almost impossible to prevent from happening. We wasted a lot of milk, but taught them to drink eventually.

When they were starting to eat grass, my father remembered a law that allowed farmers to graze livestock on the verges of country roads as long as they didn't interfere with traffic. Our house was on the edge of town, and the other side of the road was 'country.' So we trained the calves to wear halters, and started tying them to stakes at the side of the road. At lunchtime one of us would bicycle from school to move them to a new patch of grass.

The calves attracted a lot of attention from passers-by, particularly because they were so friendly, and eventually we had a call from a local primary school asking if teachers could bring kids to visit the bobby calves. Dad agreed, of course, and gave instructions about how the calves were to be treated. From then on a succession of calves got used to fame, as they had their stint by the side of the road entertaining and educating crowds of children, until they (the calves, not the children) were big enough to be transported down to the farm.

While all this was going on my father had been doing more research. The dehorning thing had been worrying him a lot. The process was, he thought, far too cruel. (Calves bleed when they're dehorned. You have to cut into living tissue.) He hated the process, and was delighted to learn about a revolutionary new dehorning method that was supposed to be painless, using (if I remember rightly) acid. He prepared the required chemical mixture (don't ask me what) and applied it religiously. He was very pleased when the calves appeared to be suffering no pain from this treatment.

About the time the last lot of bobby calves went down to the farm, I left home, and while I visited the house a couple of times, I didn't make it to the farm for about a year.

When I finally did visit, passing through on my drive back, my father was there working on something, and we chatted a bit. Before I left I asked him if the bobby calves were still around, and he told me they were over in the river paddock.

"Are they still friendly?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," he answered. "Very friendly!" He laughed. (I should have taken note of that laugh.)

I went over to the river paddock but couldn't see them at first. They were down by the willows next to the river. But when I called, they came, in that slow, lumbering way cattle have, and I walked to the middle of the paddock to meet them. There were about 14 or 16 of them.

The first thing I noticed was that they all had enormously long, curving horns.

The second thing I noticed was that they had become very, very large. I couldn't quite believe that these were the little calves we'd hand-reared.

But they were definitely the same ones. They hadn't forgotten anything. I stopped, unsure whether or not I really wanted to get that close to those horns, but they weren't having any of that. They wanted to meet me. They were PLEASED. They had a VISITOR. Perhaps they remembered their short-lived fame, and had been dreaming of visitors. I'd never seen cattle being enthusiastic before. They positively gallivanted the last few meters, and it was terrifying. Their hooves thundered. They tossed their heads happily. (They tossed their long, curving horns happily.) They looked ridiculous, and also quite scary.

I stood very still and they gathered around me. I tentatively held out a hand, and one of them gave it a nibble with its soft lips. You could see it remembering what the hand was all about, and the next thing I knew my arm had disappeared up to the elbow and great gobs of saliva were streaming down to my armpit as it sucked vigorously. It was the most disgusting thing you can imagine. Steers have very stringy, green saliva, I discovered, and a lot of it.

I extracted my hand and tried patting necks, instead. But they remembered the little head-butting games we used to play and decided they wanted to do that instead. I'd forgotten that one, and it had become a lot more dangerous in the last year. One of them shook its head playfully. I eyed the horns and decided it was time to beat a dignified retreat. I turned and started to walk back to the gate, which suddenly seemed a long way off.

They all followed. I could hear their breathing. I turned, and they were RIGHT AT MY SHOULDER. I walked a bit faster, and so did they. One got so close it was drooling down the back of my neck, and I could feel its hot breath.

I abandoned dignity and broke into a run.

So did they.

As I ran, I thought, But they're FRIENDLY! They LIKE people! Why am I running away from the friendliest steers in the WORLD?

Then I turned and looked behind me and understood exactly why I was running. They were SO eager to cooperate in the new chasing game. They were lumbering along and drooling and tossing their heads and clearly having the time of their lives. They were also a lot faster than I imagined such large beasts to be. They seemed to enjoy exercise more than cattle usually do. In my panic I was pretty sure I could feel the ground shaking. Their breathing got heavier.

I made it to the gate and didn't bother to open it. I leaped it, falling to the other side.

With the gate between us I felt safe again, and turned to face them. They crowded up against the gate, sides heaving, and reached their heads towards me. I didn't know cattle could look happy, but these guys did. They were so keen to get close to their fascinating visitor that they were nudging and shoving each other out of the way. I risked another arm mauling and allowed one of them to suck my already sticky arm. Then I decided I'd had enough, and went back to the cottage to wash.

Then I went to find my father, to confront him. I was still feeling a bit indignant about the horns.

"What happened with your revolutionary new dehorning method?" I demanded. "You could have warned me!"

"Oh, that," he said, laughing embarrassedly. "I thought you knew. It didn't work."

"I noticed," I said. "But couldn't you have chopped them off anyway, using the conventional method?"

"Well, by the time I noticed it was a bit late," he admitted. "And it would have hurt them even more than if it'd been done when they were younger. So I decided to just leave it. After all, they are friendly."

"Oh, yes, VERY friendly," I said sarcastically.

"I'll bet they were pleased to see you, though!" he said, a little defensively. "And they're harmless. They wouldn't eat you or anything."

"No, they just tried to drown me in saliva," I said "And then they wanted to butt heads."

They don't know their own strength," he said. Then he started laughing, and told me a little story. I think he was trying to distract me, and it worked.

"They got out one time, and the neighbour called town to tell me he couldn't get them back in again. He tried to herd them with the motorbike, but they ignored it."

"I can imagine," I said, and started laughing. (The neighbour was a REALLY BIG TOUGH guy.)

"Well, yes, I don't suppose it was very funny for him, really," he said. "But he said when he revved the engine they just came closer and sucked the handlebars and made them all gooey. They got used to traffic when they were tied up by the road, remember?" He looked reflective. "You know, the neighbour was quite angry with me at first."

"So what did you do?" I asked.

"Oh, it was easily sorted out," said Dad. "I just told him to drive through the gate and they'd follow, and they did. He called back later and said it was the strangest cattle management system he'd ever encountered. He seemed to have calmed down a bit by then. In fact he still visits them sometimes. He takes townie visitors over when he wants to give them a bit of a fright."

"I'm sure it's very effective," I said. "So when are you going to sell them, anyway? They must be about ready by now. I remember you said about a year."

"Oh, er... soon, I suppose," said my father. "Well, better get back to work!"

A year later the friendly cattle were still there. They had been joined by a small deformed goat that should have been put down because she was useless for breeding (not a horrible deformity; she had extra nipples). Dad had decided that she was a nice little creature, and why should she be put down? There was plenty of room on the farm. (Sometimes I wondered if my father was really cut out to be a farmer. He lacked the necessary ruthlessness.) The little goat had made friends with the cattle and bossed them around relentlessly. They were loving it. You could tell. Sometimes they grazed together peacefully, but other times the steers would lumber after the goat, tossing their heads, and she'd dance gracefully around their feet making them all confused and hilarious.

Dad shook his head at the sight. "Their meat will be far too tough," he sighed. "They get too much exercise. Better not sell them off just yet."

I don't know what happened to those steers in the end. I suppose they were sold off after my father died. I never asked. But I imagine they went to their deaths willingly. They'd ridden in trucks before. They weren't afraid of machinery, or people. A man with a stun gun in his hand would have been a welcome sight to those foolish beasts. Ooh! A new friend! Can I suck your hand?

I like to think that whoever eventually ate our steers had an inexplicable bout of happiness right after dinner.


Tim Zim said...

I love this story.

Faerunner said...

You seem to have had quite a great childhood :) You're also quite the storyteller, this tale made me giggle. ^_^

Anonymous said...

That was probably the coolest bovine-related story that I ever read! ;^) And, those photos of "Lurch" were awesome!

Pigs said...

Interesting picture...

E.P. said...

ROTFL! ROTFL! I got the best abs-workout reading this, GoodAunt! (***WHEN*** will you be publishing your book??? This essay DEFinitely needs to be in there, along with the likes of the one about you and the bathmat). Much to my chagrin the cows who live in the field around me are totally the opposite of those friendlys.

As for Lurch, I'm just not convinced that isn't a digitally enhanced picture. I mean, gimme a break, how can that poor bovine carry the WEIGHT of those things without constantly having a migraine (and/or horrible upper back and neck pain)?

melinama said...

I also feel sorry for Lurch. He will not be a spontaneous guy. Even deciding to look to the right might engender a lot of contemplation first. Would it really be worth it? Might there be anything over there important enough to warrant moving the head?

your cow slime sounds horrible. reminded me of the tennis ball collections made by a golden retriever in my childhood neighborhood. this dog hid them and drooled all over them till they were covered with gelatinous green goo and when he picked them up long drool trails dripped off. a la "Men in Black" thanks for these stories.

Gordon said...

Very funny story.

Just wish I hadn't been tucking into a beef sandwich whilst reading it!!

Badaunt said...

Gorden: You never know. If you felt happy after eating your sandwich, they were probably happy cows.

Melinama: You had the same reaction I did. His poor neck!

Tim: I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think it was more fun to write than to live through. :-) Before that incident I didn't know cows could gallop.

Faerunner: My childhood was a mixture of good and bad, like most, and why dwell on the bad stuff?

EP: OPPORTUNITY! If you have cows in the pasture around you, you can make friends with them. (Providing they're the same cows for long enough, that is.) Try singing to them, and/or playing a musical instrument. Cows ADORE music. This is not some sort of New Age waffly thing, it's provable. Try it and see what happens. A couple of friends and I once held a 'cow concert'(the idea being to cheer up one of the friends, who was having a horrible bout of depression, and it worked) and I promise you it's effective. We set up a music stand in a field, and played Christmas carols to a bunch of (randomly chosen out in the country somewhere) cows. They came closer and closer, in a semi-circle. When we stopped singing, they moved back. When we started again, they moved forward. They are the most appreciative audience you can imagine, and we were not very good musicians. Dairy farmers always have a radio, or at least music, playing in the milking sheds. Cows give more milk if they're happy, and music makes them happy. There is nothing more happy-making than singing to cows. You'll know when they've got totally lost in the music because they'll stop chewing.

E.P. said...

Oh, YES, GoodAunt, I had tried for 5.5 years to make friends with these 3 bovine belles, but in vain; they kept their distance (literally). Then, last year, FINALLY, the "Grand Secret" got out: their owner told me that they love oranges---preferably green ones, LOL! So, first chance I got, I raced over to my orange trees and plucked a bunch and wow, did those damsels ever devour them, rind and all! (Inhale would be more accurate.) Now, even the shyest one trusts me enough to come right up for her servings, whenever I bring them their Vitamin C snack.

As for their love of music, indeed, I accidentally discovered that a couple of months ago: was playing a Beach Boys CD really loud on my patio, and singing along (neighbors are too far away to be disturbed). Well, Mamma Moo (that's my name for the matriarch of the trio) stopped munching and stared and stared at me. (I wasn't sure if it was much of a tribute to have a bovine audience intrigued by my singing.)

I will certainly try out your advice; wonder how they'd respond to a violin concert? (I could play "Home, Home on the Range," and they might especially go for that!)

Lippy said...

Oh, that is such a good story. Reminds me of a similar thing that happened to me when I was working on a horse ranch. It's all fun and games till someone ends up in tears - or a broken arm... heh heh

Mike said...

That is completely charming