Good cattle gone bad
The innocent looking cast of characters:
Della, aka Queen D and her teenage son, Brooks, aka Brooks.
Lath, aka Suzie, or Smarty. Don’t let her milk breath fool you, she’s no baby!
Living on a farm requires you use all your senses, all the time. I have a hard time getting Ruth Less to pay attention to more than the task at hand. It may be her age, or maybe she takes after her father that way, but if she goes to feed her horse, she doesn’t always pay attention to the obvious. She comes back from the barn, and I start peppering her with questions, “Is the overflow running?” ” A little or a lot?” “Blah, blah, blah???”
Another part about our farm that is hard to deal with is, our proximity to two busy roads. Our house was built in the era where it was desirable to be close to the road, our barns are close to the roads, and our pastures lie on either side of the road. It is hard to explain to most humans, that our livestock and dogs do not understand that the 40′ paved area is not theirs. While it strikes fear in our hearts if they get out; it is just a place to use to get from one place to another, not unlike the way we use the highway.
It has also been my observation at least on any dealings I have had with cattle, that they usually won’t push a fence unless they are hungry. It is pretty simple. I know that, but sometimes I make decisions that cause me grief at a later time, and I have to backtrack to see when I made the mistake.
I made the mistake weeks ago, when I decided not to fix some electric fence that the snow had smashed. My flawed reasoning, justification at the time was, that it hadn’t been electrified for at least a year, and no one had bothered it. Which they wouldn’t have if I hadn’t cut the field in half, and let the herd in one half because I was short on straw. My problem is I make decisions based on past behavior, and while I can anticipate future cattle behavior pretty good too, I get distracted with life and well, forget, or don’t think about that fence again, until, well, something REMINDS me. Talk about a one track mind and not paying attention….
Anyway, one morning last week, I heard a cow bawl at the feeding shed early in the a.m. I filed that tidbit away as a Hmmmm. A few quick questions passed through the fog of my slightly caffeinated mind, “Was that Pretty One?” “Is her calf on the other side of the fence?” Our cows don’t bawl as a general rule. If they hear me bellering yelling talking loudly, or they want feed or water, and if someone is getting to eat something the others aren’t, are all reasons to bawl. Of course they talk to us differently when they see us, as a greeting or a way to ask for feed.
Ruth Less went out to feed her horse and didn’t notice that Della and her son weren’t there. If they sleep out, they are usually back to the barn waiting for milking and feeding. If Della isn’t there, Lath is ALWAYS there being a pest, demanding her bucket!
When I step out in the morning, (or at night too) I stop and listen – I usually can hear the overflow from the hydraulic ram, it trickles into the stock tank and is our indicator for the ram. If the overflow isn’t running, the ram isn’t either, unless we have used a fair amount of water at the house. If the ram is stopped it is a ¼ mile hike down into the canyon to start the ram. So the sound of that water is music to my ears. That sound has melded with all the other sounds of a content farm in my brain. The absence of it is actually deafening.
I stepped out on the porch, carrying Lath’s warmed milk, my wash bucket, and my milking bucket. Water trickling, good. Proceed to the barn and wait for the circus that ensues with milk-wanting cats, and cat-wanting dogs. Usually, I just hold my buckets high, everyone tears by to the safe zone, and I call Lath’s name – she always greets me with a hearty bawl, or if she can see me, a long, low mmmmmmm. I hang her bucket on the fence and go and get Della’s morning feeding ready. Hmmmm. No answer. I go in the barn and look in the loafing shed. No one is in sight, except the Nick the horse, still finishing his morning hay. He looks at me, as if to say, “Where are they?” I answer back with a look as if to say, “I dunno.”
Then the early moo comes back to mind, and I walk up over the crest to see if perhaps, maybe they are in the garden. I spy a yearling, but I can’t tell what side of the fence he is on. Then I see the other cows, and they see me and starting bawling their heads off saying, “I want to be over there, let me go too!” They aren’t tattling as much as they’re pleading. By this time, all the coffee has sunk in and I can clearly think. Remove as much distraction as possible. First order of business, put the dogs in the house, and quiz the kid! At first I thought the herd of cows were on my nephews property next door, but as I was marching back to the house with the dogs, I was wondering “where is Della and Lath?” They never are very far, especially Lath, being a bucket calf, she depends on us to bring her milk so while she is bonded with the cows, she is very in tune with our human schedule.
After interrogating Ruth Less about not noticing if anyone was there or not earlier, we went out to try to figure out how to get the cows back on the right side of the fence, since there are no gates in that fence. I have learned to remove the as many “roadblocks” as I can before actually attempting to get cattle back in. First was the dogs, they would only “help” at the wrong time, so in the house they went. For the most part, our cattle come to us, we don’t have to herd them, you know the old honey, vinegar thing. Next, we unplugged the electric fence. They will only go through an electric fence that is on, if it is their idea, not yours. We grabbed a bucket of sweet feed, and a lead rope and headed out. Then we saw the problem, Della, Brooks and Lath were the unsub’s – not the herd! So while trying to fathom them getting clear over onto my nephew’s property, we quickly put the herd in the barn and fed them, and locked them in. Another set of problems out of our hair. We could easily lead Della back around the fence and through the timber and Brooks and Lath would follow. Insert sound of BIG RELIEF SIGH here. Della didn’t really want to leave the herd (yes, they get herd bound just like horses) so we backtracked to find the grain bucket and lead and then we heard loud honking down at the house! Uh-oh, Della found her way around the nephews gate and was probably going down to the other gate! Too smart for her own good. Ruth Less ran down to the house to open the gate for Della and I was headed for the upper gate to get behind them and I realized the honking was getting closer, and then I could hear the sound of cloven hooves on pavement and that INCESSANT honking. As I reached the gate, and was crawling through, Della, Brooks, and Lath went by with pained look on their faces as if to say “HELP!” It was the damncontract tree trimming crew that works for the power company, chasing these cows at 20 mph into a blind corner. I swear I wanted to shoot their tires out from under them! After watching them for two weeks, take hours to trim and chip something a normal worker could do in an afternoon, not to mention I couldn’t understand a word of their language as they yelled and harassed the dogs for the entire two weeks, too. They thought they knew where the cows belonged because I had caught them on our property, a week earlier, they were just “looking” at the cattle on their lunch break, but what I had seen was the cows, running out of the barn wildly. When I went to investigate the cattle were wild eyed and the tree trimmers were hooting and hollering at the gate on the loafing shed. Clearly they were trespassing.
At this point, I had to thank them for “helping” and tell them to move on, they couldn’t understand their truck was blocking the cows from coming back, so with much arm waving and cussing under my breath, I finally conveyed “MOVE ON!” “Don’t you have a limb to trim today?” By this time Della was tired, and her cohorts were just wishing they had never got out. I opened the gate and called her, she came gladly and the calves followed. They came back down to the barn with us, and I reheated Lath’s milk for her and milked Della. They took a huge nap, and I went and fixed that fence that I should have fixed weeks ago.
♣ Remove all obstacles, and distractions, e.g., dogs, small children, turn off electric fence.
♣ Think of where you want to end up, and open and close gates that will help you move your stock without too much stress on you and them.
♣ Stay calm if possible. It isn’ t the end of the world, although it may seem like it. Move slowly around the animals. If you move fast and push them, they will get unpredictable. And don’t chase them on horse-back or with dogs unless they are used to that. On most small farms the horse/dog thing is unnecessary.
♣ Sometimes you may need to move a bellwether to get the escapees in line. In this case, we needed to contain our herd of cows, while we moved the others away. Otherwise we had the potential for all of them to get out.
♣ Break the task up into small bits, and just work your way calmly through each task.
♣ Apologize for losing your temper if you lose your temper, and talk over “what went right.”
♣ It can help to have at least some of your stock halter trained, or grain broke. We don’t feed grain, but I keep a bag of sweet feed just for this type of problem. It only takes one to pay attention to you to get the whole herd turned around. Even grain in a ziploc bag in your pocket will work if you let them know you have it with you.
♣ Reward them with feed or what have you when you get them back in. Della and the calves drank a large amount of water, which told me they had been out most of the night before. Major boo boo on my part.
♣ Most important, fix the fence when you see it may be a problem. This could have all been avoided if I had just taken the time initially.
Just a note: electric fencing is not a legal fence, meaning it cannot (and should not) be the only barrier at a roadway. We still have not checked all our permanent fence lines after the storm damage. After the culprits got out through the electric fence , they found a place where a tree had come down on the permament fence and got onto a neighbors property. So most of the time when I say the “cows got out” I mean they just get out of where they should be, but they are still on our property.