Being a child of the suburbs, I never realized that cattle can have unique personalities. I know better now.
In early December, my friend and I had towed a trailer loaded with a one-ton round bale of hay up to his farm on Spruce Knob. This is not just a simple road trip. The narrow gravel road leading from paved highway to his farm is a steady series of inclines and hairpin turns that caused me to close my eyes in sheer terror the first time I visited the area. On the left side of the road is a sheer drop to a picturesque, rock-lined river. There is no guardrail. The West Virginia Highway Department must figure its drivers know how to stay on the road. They’d go broke trying to protect drivers from tumbling over every precipice up and down the “hollers” here. I’m just impressed they keep the roads as clear and well-maintained as they do.
Anyway, my friend backed the trailer into the pen near the barn. I thought it would be easier for the cattle to get the hay if it was loosened from the bale and fluffed, so I proceeded to do just that. Picture this: The round bale of hay was at the front of the 16′ trailer. The trailer has 12″ sides. There was snow on the ground making it fairly easy to step from the ground to the bed of the trailer. Three or four cows were in the pen, tearing at the hay, while my friend’s dog investigated the scene.
One of the cows in the pen had taken a real disliking to the dog. He’d chased her before and hadn’t yet learned that the cow could do a lot of damage to a nuisance of a dog. We’d named this cow Spot because she has a quarter-sized white spot on her left flank. Spot was getting highly annoyed with the dog’s antics.
I was still on the trailer, pulling the round bale apart, when the dog came tearing up onto the planks of the trailer like a bat out of you-know-where. And right behind the dog was Spot, the 1400-pound Black Angus cow. Spot managed to get the front half of her body onto the bed of the trailer before I realized what was happening. I threw my arms out in front of me and shouted, “Stop! Bad cow!” and, much to my surprise, Spot stopped in her tracks. She slowly backed off and resumed munching hay. Gradually, my heart rate slowed and I resumed breathing. I had not realized cattle could be so nimble.
In January, I had taken some apple chunks and mineral salt to the two donkeys that keep the Black Angus company in the pasture. Donkeys are very protective of their herd and will kill any coyote that tries to make off with a calf. They can kick in all directions and are lightning-fast. The two donkeys with my friend’s herd haven’t been tamed yet, so I’ve been trying to get them used to me for several months now. They’ve come close to me when I’ve tossed apple chunks on the ground and on this particular day, one of them even mouthed the apple chunk on my outstretched hand.
This donkey was getting braver and more confident – until a cow nudged her out of the way and made a beeline for my hand. Sure enough, that cow was Spot! Without any hesitation, Spot walked right up to me (there was a fence between us) and licked the apple out of my hand. She sniffed my hand, reminding me of my cat, Sammie, who sniffs my hand in greeting when I arrive home. However, Spot’s sniffer is considerably larger than Sammie’s – the cow’s nose is about as large of a generously-sized recipe card box and her tongue is HUGE! It’s thick, about as long as from my elbow to my wrist, very soft, and pleasantly warm. Spot especially liked licking salt from my hands and I found the experience rather amusing, somewhat intimidating, and enjoyable all at the same time.
Yesterday, my friend and I had been working in the bullpen, replacing a woven wire fence that had sagged where numerous cattle had scratched their necks against it over the years. We had finished for the day and after I’d gathered the tools and tossed extra wood and wire in the back of the pickup truck, I wandered over to the the round bale feeders. I wanted to pull down some hay from one of the feeders so the cattle could reach it easier. The cattle let me through and watched as I climbed the feeder and tossed down hay within reaching distance. I always talk to the cattle when I’m with them and last night was no exception. I looked over at one cow, asked, “Want some hay?” and tossed a big handful in her direction. The cow came right over and began eating at the feeder. She must have broken the ice for other, more timid cows, because several others walked over and began eating.
I finished up, then started to walk back to the house. By this time, it was dark and I could only see black shadowy figures where the cattle were. I noticed one cow by the bullpen and said hello to her. Much to my surprise, the cow walked straight toward me. She didn’t intend to walk by me, but headed in a beeline for ME! I kept praying the cow was Spot but I must confess to a bit of nervousness as this HUGE shape loomed up in front of me. This time, there was NO FENCE between cow and me. As I do with cattle, I stuck out my ungloved hand for her to sniff. She acted familiar and leaned in so I could pet her. Imagine a head the size of your microwave oven pushing toward you. Yes, it was a little scary. A head that size can easily take a man down with one swipe. But this was a friendly head that just wanted to be petted and would have preferred a bit of mineral salt or an apple chunk, too. “Spot?” I asked hopefully. When she turned her left side to me, I searched for the tiny bit of white on her flank and found it, then breathed a sigh of relief. It was my bovine buddy.
I’ll have to make a habit of bringing apples and mineral salt with me when I walk among the cattle. I’d hate to disappoint Spot.
On second thought, I don’t know what I’d do if two or more cows decided to waltz over together and ask for a treat. Too much of a good thing might be WAY too much!