Friday, October 9, 2009

Sue Weaver: Having a Cow

With Get Your Goat in Sarah Guare’s capable hands for copyediting, I’m segueing into my next book project, Have a Cow.

As I look around on a daily basis, I’m aware that I live in the perfect place for this project: the Ozarks are beef cattle heaven. Besides the ubiquitous Herefords , Angus, and black baldys (a nonregistered cross of those two) that dominate pastures throughout our land, our neighbors raise shaggy Highlands, speckled Longhorns and Corrientes, exotic Brahmans, immense Gelbvieh, and spectacularly horned Watusi, to name just a few.

As I spy a breed I am not familiar with, we stop and take a closer look. The cattle usually canter to the fence and stare back, making me wonder who is inspecting whom. I often come away thinking, “I’d like to have one of those.” The most tempting (so far) have been our across-the-road neighbor’s Brahman cows.

Brahman crosses are popular in the Ozarks as well as farther south, but I’ve never been up close and personal with purebred Brahmans before. Their kohl-lined almond eyes, droopy ears, and porcelain coloring intrigue me. I can see what Lord Krishna saw in such beautiful cows.

But maybe a love of cows is hot-wired into most women’s souls? In times past, a milk cow was a woman’s best friend, or so states Lori Winn Carlson in Cattle: An Informal Social History (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001), a book worth reading even if you don’t love cows. She points out that women had equal status with men in ancient cattle-herding societies, where deities were earth mothers and women cared for the clan’s valuable cows and bulls while their men were away waging war.

As recently as the early twentieth century, a dairy cow or two represented economic freedom to the country woman. She churned her cows’ rich milk and sold it as butter, an easily transported substance in high demand. That our foremothers here and across the seas treasured their cows is evident in the vintage photos I collect. These are typical.

Even now, when the average American woman has never felt a cow’s warm breath on her cheek, women are in love with cows. Think Elsie the Borden cow, an American icon who celebrated her 70th birthday this year, and the thousands of collectibles she’s generated since the 1930s — so many that it takes an entire collectors’ book to describe them (Coito, Albert, and Shelly Coito. Elsie the Cow & Borden's Collectibles: An Unauthorized Handbook and Price Guide. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1999). Or CowParade, the international public exhibit of art using life-size fiberglass cows as canvases — and the slew of collectible figurines it’s generated. Do men collect these items? Probably so, but most end up in kitchens across the land, where Holsteins are the critter du jour. A search today at eBay brought up 3,624 cow-collectible auctions. I’ll write about the favorites, like Elsie and cow creamers, in sidebars in my book.


Elizabeth said...

Hi there!
I am new to the world of bovines and how to handle them. My story, like many other's, is related to having a soft heart. A friend told me about a steer who was a year old and was being " grained" so that he could be nice and fat when he went to the slaughter house.
She was distraught. Having watched him since he was tiny she couldn't fathom standing by and watching him disappear in a truck only to end up on plate's in stranger's homes.
I am an artist as well as an animal lover. I can recount many tales of coaxing dogs into my car that have found themselves lost along an expressway. I once scooped of a litter of kittens left on an entrance ramp. There are so many times I just couldn't turn my back and so saving this young steer seemed in keeping with my slightly impractical history.
I have painted many cows so the next logical step seemed to pay the per pound price and figure the rest out later.
Well, scraping up the money was the easy part! No one nearby can understand why anyone would do this. We found a place that would allow "Egbert" to live over the winter along with two horses. Even though my friend had handled Egbert as a "young man" people told us not to go in with him. I see him twice a week and he always comes over for pets and treats. He let's me pet him through the gate, rub him under the chin, touch his nose and get scratches here and there. At times, he runs and kicks and we stride next to one another separated by the fence.
Now the owner of the land feels like it is time to move him elsewhere. She is worried that he hasn't been handled enough to be trusted. Her people have to go in to handle the horse's and this worries her.Sometimes he runs up and shakes his head and no one knows cow-speak!I do, of course, understand the concerns here. I been told again and again of the unpredictability these critters.
We spoke with a woman who works with 4H and she said he was too old to teach. He is now about 15 mos. Call me an optimist but I still would like to try to work with him. Sue, you are the only person out there who seems to be a "cow whisperer". I am feeling rather desperate for some good solid advice along with a little understanding.
Is there anyway I could contact you for a phone consultation. I just don't want to give up an my dear steer!!
Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I alerted Sue Weaver, that you posted this comment. She guest posts for Inside Storey, so I wanted to be sure she saw this.

I am hoping she has some advice to lend you. Stay tuned.

- Kristy L. Rustay

Anonymous said...

This just in from Sue Weaver:

Hi Elizabeth,

You and I sound a lot alike, from picking up 'dumped' dogs to saving steers. Soft heart, soft head, whatever--I wouldn't want it any other way.

I don't know that I'm a cow whisperer but I do think you could still train Egbert, though it may be difficult due to his size. What breed is he? Does he have horns? Horns make it harder.

He runs up and shakes his head either because he's playing or he's challenging someone; either is definitely Not A Good Thing in an animal his size, especially if horns are involved. I still have the playful problem with Aiah sometimes. And he has impressive horns and weighs probably close to a ton.

Was he halter trained as a calf? I would clicker train him but you may have to be tougher up front if he isn't halter trained. As in, halter him and lead him from the back of a truck in creeper gear, with the lead tied but with a person sitting in the bed to encourage him, holding a knife in their hand in case something goes wrong and they have to cut him loose (unlikely but it's best not to take chances). Once he leads and ties (he'd learn to 'give' to the lead while being led from a truck and that's the basis of tying), then clicker train.

Do you have a copy of The Backyard Cow? If you don't I suggest you get a copy (Amazon is a good place to buy at a discount) and read up on how cattle percieve their world. I also talk at length about clicker training steers.

One thing about clicker training an animal of Egbert's size is, however, that you can't simply ignore bad behavior as in training, say, a dog or goat, because it's awfully easy to be injured even if he doesn't mean to hurt you. Cattle have a strong herd hierarchy--this is the nature of cattle--and you will be part of his herd; he will want to be boss and you can't allow that. It's best to carry a small slat and if he challenges you, calmly, without making a big deal (don't yell, don't wave your arms), smack him smartly on the nose. That tells him you are the boss cow; once he accepts that, he probably won't challenge you again. If in doubt, carry the slat until you're sure he accepts you're higher ranking than he is. Again, it's very easy for a huge animal to injure a human. He's not being 'mean' when he swings his head at you, he's just behaving in the way of his species.

Cattle really aren't that unpredictable once you understand what's going on in their heads. These links should help.

This is especially good:

This addresses dairy cattle behavior but applies to other cattle too:

Also very good:

I hope this helps!