I was moving cows today, and as I pushed down fences, opened gates, and slammed stall doors in breathless haste I remembered the panicky feeling I had as a child playing musical chairs at birthday parties. Hurry, hurry!
In this case my thumping heart was due to the fact that two of the cows (the visiting beefer Roxanne and my bull George Clooney) do not lead and I had no idea if I could entice them where I wanted them to go. Moreover, Georgie the bull has felt dangerous to me now for weeks.
Naturally, the moment I’d made a date to hire the excavator for a month, the weather turned vile. Monday night, after leading my cow Katika down to the barn to feed the new foster calf Charlie, I stepped back outside, holding Katika’s lead rope. Wham! The wind hit like a blow, banging the barn doors and throwing rain and hail. Katika pulled back and looked at me, clearly wishing I would turn back and leave her in her dear warm stall. I could not, as the other two cows would bellow for her all night, upsetting the neighbors. We trudged up the winding driveway to the far pasture in the downpour, both getting soaked.
Yesterday morning there was a skim of ice in the water troughs. When I walked Katika down to the barn, I looked up and saw a large coyote standing just beyond the paddock fence. It was broad daylight and I could see him clearly, right down to the stiff hairs furring the inside of his ears. He was tawny gold and brown, as big as a small German Shepherd. Katika and I stopped and stared. The coyote stared boldly back. “Shoo!” I said. He just looked at me. I took Katika into the barn and locked her in her stanchion. When I came back out, the coyote had melted into the poplar brush.
But between the predators and the cold wet weather I knew it was time to return the animals from summer pastures to the barn for winter. The sheep were no problem: the moment I opened their fencing the flock galloped down the hillside in search of the grain they knew would find in the stuffed hay racks in their stall. The cows were tougher. I don’t have enough stalls to accommodate three big cows. I decided to bring the cattle down to the barn paddock so at least they could huddle in the lee of the barn out of the wind. But how? I hadn’t yet dug the postholes for gates between the pastures. I’d have to pull down the electric lines in both fences and hope for the best.
Katika, as usual, was perfect. She stepped over the electric lines, walked purposefully through the underbrush, stepped into the barn paddock, and walked straight into the barn and into her stanchion. Georgie, my bull, hesitated and then galloped after her. I nipped around in front of him and closed the barn door. Thwarted, he bellowed a few times in irritation and then put his head down and began eating his grain.
However our visiting Hereford, Roxanne, bellowed piteously from the upper pasture. She was stuck alone. The white electric rope on the ground terrified her. She paced back and forth in front of it, bellowing her distress.
I ran up the driveway and tried to coax her over the downed fence. Stout Roxanne blinked her red-rimmed eyes in fright and refused. I ran back to the barn and got more grain. Ah, food! She curled out her long tongue to taste the sweet corn. I got her close to the fence and then let her bury her head in the bucket. With her eyes covered, she stepped unknowingly over the scary rope. Then I pulled the bucket away and we started through the brush toward the barn. The ground shook as she trotted after me.
Georgie, however, had finished his snack and heard me shaking the grain can for Roxanne. He stalked across the barn paddock, bellowing. I picked up a switch. When he met me and Roxanne at the fenceline, he growled deep in his throat. Meanwhile Roxanne was eyeing the second fence rope to cross and having her doubts. She turned her half ton on the hoof and started in the other direction.
The moment hung in the balance. I began to shout. (Cows hate shouting.) “No! No! Go! Go!” I slashed Georgie across the face with my switch, to back him away from the fence. I whipped Roxie on the bottom. Georgie pulled back in confusion. Roxanne scooted over the fence. I dumped the remaining grain on the ground as a distraction for them and hurried with shaking hands to pull the fence back up. Home free!
But it was clearly time for Roxanne’s visit to end. She was bred twice last week in my sight, and undoubtedly more often when I wasn’t watching. (If she’s not pregnant it will be due to her obesity — fat cows don’t always conceive.) The school farmers were overwhelmed with chores and had told me they couldn’t come for her for another week. The forecast has been for snow; I was determined to be able to bring my cows in at night. Roxanne had to go. I offered to trailer her back myself.
Then, of course, when Allen stopped by for his milk I asked for his help.
I am great at trailering animals as long as I’m driving forward. However, backing anything that pivots on a hitch is, for me, a nightmare. Inevitably I pinch the axles. On long hauling trips I’ve been known to drive out of my way to find bank parking lots to turn around in, rather than back. Moving Roxanne would require backing tightly to barn doors on both ends, and in one place, backing up a narrow curving driveway with a drop-off.
Allen knows from personal experience that I’m challenged by machinery and hopeless at backing, but he continues to find it incomprehensible. “It’s easy!” he protested automatically.
I snorted. “Yes, Allen, I know, easy for you. But spell supernatural!”
We both laughed. He agreed affably to help me.
This morning it was alternately raining and spitting snow. I picked up Allen in town, we drove to get the school truck and trailer, and, as I knew he would, in one smooth reverse of the truck he backed the trailer snug to my barn. Then I went to bring the cows in.
Allen grew up working on farms and has forgotten more about farming than I’ll ever know — I call him “Farm Boy” — but he is older and in fragile health. When not at the controls of a giant vehicle, he seems almost as small and vulnerable to me as Lucy. I had a sudden image of him trampled by big hairy cattle rampaging through the barn. “Allen, why don’t you wait in the grain room?”
Once he was safe I opened the door to the barn paddock.
Katika calmly walked down the aisle and into her stall. I darted over and slid the bolt closed on her gate. Georgie, however, had not been in the barn in months; in his excitement he galumphed down the aisle knocking into rakes and muck buckets. His instinct was to go to his baby stall behind Katika. Not only would he not fit in it any more, but Charlie was there and the door was shut. Instead Georgie had to go into the big horse stall, where grain awaited him — but he’d never been in that stall. He lowered his head and shook it at me, blowing. He is much bigger now, almost full-grown. My heart hammered. I had a heavy chunk of wood in my back pocket, and prodded him with it. “Go on, Georgie.” He was annoyed and confused, but at last he turned into the horse stall and I slammed the gate shut and threw the bolt home.
“Seem kinda scared,” Allen observed from the grain room.
“I am scared of bulls,” I admitted.
After that, Roxanne was easy. We just shook a grain can and opened and closed doors. She was more afraid of entering the unknown barn than of following me onto the familiar trailer. She was loaded in minutes. At the school Allen effortlessly backed the trailer up the narrow driveway to the school barn, and Roxanne was soon decanted to her own stall.
Not long afterward I dropped Allen at his son’s work in town. I gave him a hug and some fresh chocolate chip cookies. “Thanks, Farm Boy!”
Snow is stinging in the air tonight. I am glad to be battening down the hatches for winter.