Numero Uno: Pt. 2
I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef, beef hide, beef hocks. They are a human product like rayon. They are like a field of shoes. They have cast iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through their brains as with other animals. They have beef fat behind their eye, beef stew.
– from A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.
My 1976 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a pet as an “animal tamed and kept as favourite or treated with fondness”. My ten year old Dexter cow, Violet, now that I no longer have a dog, is my favourite animal and she is treated with fondness.
An animal that I don’t even stroke; I hesitate to call her a pet: I tell people that she’s the only living link to my original Dexter herd of four breeding cows, and that, although I don’t get her in calf these days, I keep her on as a nod to the past and as herd matriarch.
From your own experience, you’ll know about behaviours a pet has in common with the rest of the species, and other behaviours that are more to do with a particular pet’s personality. It’s the antics that seem to me either an exaggerated version of normal cow behaviour or quirky idiosyncracies peculiar to Violet, that never fail to fascinate and amuse, and take the sting out of those behaviours that might otherwise be viewed as bloody annoying. Just as we are accepting of a true friend warts and all, we also accept the whole package when it comes to how we feel about our pets.
The only time I’ve seen her kick out her back legs in a “I mean business” way was when she decided my shepherd’s crook had got too close to them: she hoofed it and sent it flying. I read into it what I wanted to read into it: “Show me some respect – stop waving that stick around!” Well, there’s Mr Ed the talking horse, so why not Mrs V the talking cow?
We both move along happily these days; Violet keeps her hooves to herself and I keep the shepherd’s crook in the shed.
Hooves to herself? Not really. In every paddock there are scooped out hollows of bare earth. One of Violet’s first activities on being moved onto a new area, is to strenuously grind her head into the soil and use her front legs to flick, with her hooves, dust backwards when it’s dry and mud backwards when it’s wet. This is often accompanied, as she pauses between bouts, by bellowing with deep, rolling rumbles of a roar worthy of a bull.
Standing up against a gate or fence, she’ll also use her bellow to get the attention of the neighbouring farmer’s large herd of steers when they are grazing a nearby paddock. Challenge accepted by a steer, the ‘bull thunder’ rumbling exchange can go on for several minutes.
Last week in my post Numero Uno: Pt. 1, I told you that she’d spooked the mobile abattoir butcher with her roaring and pawing of the ground. Took me by surprise too – Violet hadn’t been vocal and kicked up a storm on previous ‘in paddock’ home kill situations. Seeing as I only get a cattle beast done once every three to four years, I’ll put what I might do differently next time on the back-burner till then!
Fascinated, amused – that was me the first couple of times I watched her destroy a patch of pasture. Novelty over, the behaviour started to annoy me. Why was I ‘putting out to pasture’ a cow that was killing off bits of it? I soon got over myself, however, and I now get quite a buzz out of being an audience of one giving live commentary on the performance.
Love it when the soil’s damp and Violet surfaces wearing a mud pack. I tell her that it’ll do wonders for her complexion, and that her self-help beauty therapy is obviously working.
A wet weather exuberance that makes me go bugger is when she gets the other two excited and they all go careering up and down soggy paddocks. It frequently happens when I’m moving them to fresh pasture – both on the way to and when they get there! Especially if they’ve been cooped up in one of the smaller paddocks for awhile. They may be a very small cow, but, at a rate of knots, their hoof gouges can still cut deep.
There’s usually a good, dense, deep-rooted sward growing, so the damage doesn’t take too long to repair itself. And I convince myself that it’s their wild Irish mountain cattle genes expressing themselves, and isn’t that great!
Cattle in general seem to get a good deal of pleasure out of vigorously rubbing their heads and necks on tree trunks. I’ve had fleeting thoughts in the past of ramming in a meaty fence post in those of my paddocks that don’t have trees or gate posts they can get at for a full-on rub.
Violet’s a real enthusiast and sometimes, on getting to a new paddock, will high-tail it to a favourite tree in preference to either getting stuck in to feed, or inflicting more destruction on a patch of ground!
A social variation on all this head and neck work is when one of the other cows uses their long, rasp of a tongue to lick Violet. It’s usually that way round – rare to see Violet stroking one of them with her tongue. No doubt some sort of dominant-submissive consolidation of behaviours going on here as well as other socialising aspects. Social animals: They need to be in herds, even if, as in my case, there’s just the three of them,
Violet has several ways of reminding the other two that she is Numero Uno when it comes to interactions with me. I may well be reading too much into it (anthropomorphism and all that), but I swear she gets jealous if I give too much attention to the others. She’ll come over and place herself quite close to me and sometimes for good measure she’ll give them a warning to back off by tossing her head in their direction. Catch Violet in a particular mood and she seems to go all smoochy when I talk softly too her; if she was human, I’d be convincing myself that she was about to swoon! Talk about anthropomorphising!
As for food, Violet will plant herself in the gateway as I move them from one paddock to the next, eating fresh pickings just the other side of the opening. If it’s a narrow entrance the others don’t dare to squeeze past until herd mother decides she’s ready to saunter on through. If it’s a wide gateway, they will, after some hesitation, rocket past her. As for any tasty titbits on offer, such as slender willow branches or leafy greens from the garden, well, she keeps them at bay with a mere toss of her head or the pretence of a butt till she’s had the choicest pickings.
Annie Dillard writes with great gusto, and she’s a gifted observer of the natural world. And she’s right, my cattle are “bred beef, beef hide, beef hocks. A human product” to a considerable extent. But it’s been a revelation and a privilege to observe that there must be, embedded in that “beef fat”, so much going on “behind their eyes”. I’m sure Annie Dillard knows the feeling – she’s got her own pets after all.
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.