Numero Uno: Pt. 1
Violet knows, in whatever way cows know, that she’s ‘Numero Uno’. The most startling evidence of this came a few months ago when another cow in the then herd of four was killed, by the mobile abattoir butcher, in the paddock by a rifle bullet to the head. He then needed to get to the felled beast reasonably promptly to cut the throat and bleed her out.
He did a quick but inadequate cut and then backed off towards me as I walked rapidly up the hill in his direction. “I’m not so sure about her,” he said. I told him that she often bellowed and pawed the ground like a bull but that she had a good temperament and wouldn’t go for him. (I could have added: “But not always a calm temperament!)
Violet, head bowed, a whisker away from the dead cow, was still roaring and kicking up a mini dust storm with her front hooves. I put on my own display of dominant behaviour: wide stance and arms akimbo to make myself look bigger, accompanied by some reasonably high-pitched and resolute sounds. (Who’s bluffing who here?) Phew! She still sees me as numero uno when I’m out there with the herd.
Once Violet was well out of the way, I held my ground, arms stretched wide, barrier-like, keeping pace with her moves as she went one way then the other in an attempt to get back to the fallen cow. The butcher, meanwhile, got briskly back on the job, and made sure the second cut cleared any clots while the heart was still pumping.
The way Violet can get herself all churned up on the outside says a lot about how churned up on the inside, how emotional, she must get at times. But it doesn’t take her long to calm down either. She stopped acting like a bull once I’d moved her out the way, and soon after that I managed to shunt Violet and the two weaned calves that were in there with her into an adjacent paddock. Half an hour later she’d regained her appetite and was chomping on hay and pasture.
The mobile abattoir operators request that you leave the cattle beast to be slaughtered in the paddock with the rest of the herd. They say it is the best way to prevent the animal getting stressed.
Personally, I get equally concerned about the trauma and long term memory traces that might linger for the rest of the herd after witnessing the slaughter of a herd mate. And cattle, unmoved by the sight and smell of blood from other species, get very worked up when they smell the blood of their own kind.
Was it possible that at some deep, unfathomable level of their being, they from then on would sense my true colours. Not numero uno with the herd’s best interests at heart, but a wolf in cow’s clothing: a predator.
Those concerns to the fore, I always used to separate out the animal at least half an hour before the butcher’s truck was scheduled to turn up. Fed a leaf of hay, by the time the truck arrived the cow or steer would be preoccupied with eating and reasonably settled. The cattle beast to be slaughtered would be placed in a small paddock near the road with easy truck access, and the rest of the herd would be sent to a paddock on the far side of a shelterbelt where they couldn’t see what was going on and sound would be muffled.
That set-up had, in the past, worked just fine. However, the first time that I managed it that way, I was told not to give the cattle beast hay. He needed the animal’s head up, not down eating hay or about to go down to get at more hay. That first time, the butcher, sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck, window down and rifle steadied on the sill, gave a couple of short, high-pitched whistles; the steer’s head came up, and the gaze held steady long enough in the direction of the sound.
I managed it that way, minus the hay, on three more consecutive occasions, before I decided to adopt the ‘in with the herd’ approach. You could say it was decided for me the first time it happened that way.
I walked down to the herd three quarters of an hour before the butcher said he’d be arriving, so that I could separate out the steer and have him settled by himself before the mobile abattoir turned up. But as I went into the paddock, I saw and heard the truck coming down our road. A roadside paddock, the driver pulling in near the gate.
Different company, different guy – he wanted it to happen right there. Hard to disagree under the circumstances. They’d all come down to the gate, typical cattle curious. Access couldn’t have been better – flat and right next to our very quiet rural road. And there’d be nothing low stress now about getting the steer away from his herd mates. I acquiesced.
They were all by the gate when he shot the steer. Violet, in particular, was quite stressed out, jerkily moving in close and giving a few low moans, but nothing like the performance she put on this last time. And moving them to an adjacent paddock wasn’t a problem.
There’s minimal stress for the animal being slaughtered, and carried out either in the midst of the herd or isolated from them, I’ve not noticed any perceivable difference, done one way or the other, in cattle behaviour towards me.
At some fundamental level, I think I used to kid myself that I wasn’t a predator; and no wonder in an age when most of us are at such a remove from where our food actually comes from. Now there’s no more fooling myself, or believing that I might just be able to fool them. I have shown, and continue to show, my predator’s face to my domesticated prey animals.
Numero uno, the human at the top of the food chain, is a predator. I can live with that.
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully for this week. Next Monday will be a much more light-hearted look at Violet’s endearing and not so endearing antics: Numero Uno: Pt. 2
Thanks for your company. Bye for now.