Cattle Characteristics Put the Fun in Cattle Ranching

How different the world would be without cattle ranching and cows heading home to the barn.
Jerry Schleicher
March/April 2010
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Grazing peacefully, a herd of cattle prefer eating to politics.
iStockphoto.com/Michaela Steininger


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Spring Cattle Drive - May 20, 2009

Photo essay of a modern cattle drive.

I admire cows the way other people like dogs, cats, horses or even goats.

Some folks rave about the beauty of the maples turning color in New England, or a grove of golden aspens in Colorado. I see the same beauty in a herd of purebred Herefords grazing on a lush, green hillside, or a golden field of cornstalks peppered with a group of Black Angus. I like to watch Holsteins waiting in line outside a dairy parlor. And I get a big kick out of those cattle-drive reenactments where cowboys trail Texas Longhorns down Main Street during the annual Pioneer Days celebration.   

Lots of people think there’s nothing cuter than a litter of puppies or kittens. I feel the same way about a newborn calf standing on wobbly legs, learning to suckle at its mother’s udder. And, to my way of thinking, watching a cow quietly chewing her cud has the same calming effect as chanting a mantra on a yoga mat.

Cattle are sociable animals and seem to enjoy one another’s company every bit as much as a group of old friends at a bridge party. Granted, every herd has at least one sociopath … the cow that stands alone at the far end of the range while the rest of the herd gathers around the water tank. But as far as I know, cows don’t start wars, they don’t look for ways to cheat other cows, and they don’t seem to discriminate against one another. Black Angus and white Charlais seem perfectly content to share the pasture with Herefords or Jerseys or black whiteface crossbreds.

Barring a stampede caused by a thunderstorm, most cows are better behaved than a room full of first-graders. Not only do they solemnly walk single file behind the herd boss to the feed bunk, they know their place in line. Every dairy cow in the country knows if she’s the third, 10th or 20th cow to be milked.

Cows tend to be good mothers. Like some other animal species, cows will take turns at watching the spring calves while the rest of the group is off grazing, and they are fully prepared to take on a predator looking for an easy meal. If a calf happens to become orphaned, another mother cow with plenty of milk can generally be persuaded to let the orphan suckle.

Cows don’t seem to object to being around people. When he was a little shaver, my wife’s youngest brother accidentally fell atop a cow while he was “tightrope walking” the top rail around the corral. Once he discovered the cow didn’t seem to mind being ridden, he and that old cow began making laps around the corral on a regular basis. She actually seemed to enjoy his company.

I spent nearly as much time with cows as with people when I was growing up. I raised 4-H calves to show at the county fair and hand-milked our little family milk-cow herd twice each day until I graduated from high school. When I was 13 and thereby considered old enough to drive, I started each morning by shoveling corn silage into the back of our old truck, then shoveling the silage into the feed bunks for the steers in our feedlot. They always seemed glad to see me arrive with their breakfast.

Our best milk cow was Judy, a gentle Guernsey that produced copious quantities of rich, creamy milk. Then there was Spot, a combination Holstein and another unknown bovine breed. Big Red, on the other hand, had been a range cow in a former life and always had reservations about serving in the milk barn. I talked to those cows every morning and night, confiding secrets I would never have shared with my parents.

As a confirmed carnivore, I delight in the milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and cottage cheese that dairy cows provide. And I’m grateful for the beef cows that nourish us with steaks, hamburgers and pot roasts, and the leather for shoes, belts, purses, wallets, gloves and jackets. Let’s see a chicken do that!

The West wouldn’t be the same without cattle. Get rid of the bucking bulls and the steers, and a rodeo would be nothing more than a horse show. Without cows and cowboys, Western movies would have to depict battles between sodbusters and weather. And in the absence of cows, cowboys would be forced to herd cats or lasso sheep.

Lacking diversions like television, video games or a subscription to GRIT, cows instead spend much of their time eating. While some cows can be downright dainty when they’re wrapping their tongues around a tuft of grass, their table manners at the feed bunk are sometimes less than civilized. Sorry to say, shoving and head butting are not uncommon when corn silage or ground alfalfa is on the menu. 

It’s nothing for a cow to gulp down 30 to 40 pounds of grass, alfalfa or silage, while a dairy cow may eat as much as 80 to 100 pounds of feed each day. Much of that food goes directly to the rumen, the first and largest of a cow’s four stomachs. Holding some 40 gallons of food, the rumen is sort of like the grass catcher on your lawn mower. A really big grass catcher.

To break down all that grass and hay into digestible nutrients, the rumen also contains microbes. Apparently, that breaking-down process produces gas, which a cow burps up when she regurgitates and chews her cud. Some experts say each cow belches up to 200 to 400 quarts of methane a day, which, I’ll agree, sounds like a lot. But come to think of it, that’s pretty much how my Uncle John acted after a big Sunday dinner.

Historians say Christopher Columbus brought the first cows to the Americas on his second trip across the Atlantic in 1493. They apparently adjusted well to the climate, because there are now more than 100 million cows in our country. That’s one cow for every three of us.

And now, I think I hear my third of a cow calling my name.

Jerry Schleicher, a country humorist and cowboy poet from Parkville, Missouri, looks forward to his next Sunday dinner of pot roast with carrots, onions and potatoes.

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