Katika is in heat and my bull Charles Bronson is crazy in love. He can’t eat, he can’t rest. And I can’t have him in the barn for fear he’ll break something. He’s only about 500 pounds, I think, but that’s enough weight to do serious damage when it’s out of control.
I took these photographs two weeks ago. Here is Charlie at ten and a half months. You can see he’s turned almost black, except for the light dorsal stripe, his star, and the tell-tale light Jersey ring around his nose. As a calf Charlie was typical Jersey fawn color. Here he is at two days old. Many Jerseys go dark, but Charlie’s coat change was stranger than most. (Unfortunately all my photos were lost.) First he developed deep, dark circles around his eyes, giving him a louche, dissipated air. “He’s even startin’ to look like Charles Bronson,” exclaimed Allen, who was working for me at the time. Next the color crept across his privates. (“Now his little nuts is turnin’ black!”) He looked so peculiar for a while it was a relief when the rest of him darkened to match.
I’m not as close to Charlie as I have been to many of my bulls. In his first weeks I was so busy with the logging and then working with Allen for a month that I didn’t spend much time with him, aside from the basics.
When he was a calf I mostly enjoyed watching Allen watch Charlie. Allen loved the bulls. Allen’s father was nicknamed “Bully” — not for his temperament but because as a logger in the ’30s and ’40s he bulled pulp wood, skidding it out of the forest with horses and loading it on trucks using only peaveys and muscle. (A modern logger told me he’d done the job without a log-loader crane only once in his life and found it so tough he’d vowed never again.) However Allen was so fond of my bulls that I teased him that he was the one who should really be called Bully.
One day Allen saw Georgie, the big bull, lying in the paddock in the cold November sunshine while Charlie the bull calf sprawled on top of him, legs dangling, soaking up the body heat.
“Ya think he thinks it’s his daddy?” he asked. He shook his head and smiled. “Cute little fucker!” (Allen had the worst language I ever heard, but he never meant to be offensive and I never heard him angry. It was just his vernacular.)
This phrase often comes back to me these days as Charlie, much bigger, darker, and more assertive, lowers his head and shakes it at me threateningly. This is not cute. I know that he’s mostly anxious, but any animal that responds to anxiety with threat is a potentially dangerous one. I am not terribly worried but I never turn my back on him.
Especially now that he’s unhinged by lust. This morning when I let the cows in, Katika went straight to her stanchion as usual for breakfast and milking. I locked her in. But instead of turning into his stall for his own grain, Charlie galloped down the barn aisle after her, murmuring sweet nothings deep in his throat. Now, Katika barely fits in her milking area. Her tailhead almost touches the rear wall. There is definitely no way for anyone, much less a 500-lb bull, to get behind her.
I don’t care! moaned Charlie, rearing up and throwing himself on her ribs from the side. Katika bucked and kicked at this indignity, but she was pinned by the neck in the stanchion. Charlie reared up again, moaning.
Hmm. What to do? Charlie’s eyes, which reveal his 1/4 Holstein blood, have always looked a bit strange to me. Jersey eyes are lovely deep black all the way around the socket — no white. When Charlie rolls his eyes at me, the Holstein white edges flash. Now I noticed the whites of his eyes were red. Talk about “inflamed with desire!” Hmm.
I didn’t think getting between him and the object of his attentions would be smart. As it was, he wheeled on his haunches, accidentally mashing my hand against the wall, and it was instantly numb and swelling. I realized the only thing that could move a love-crazed 650-pound bull out of the barn would be Katika herself, who weighs 1200 pounds.
I darted close and pulled the pin on Katika’s stanchion while Charlie was busy pumping frenziedly against her side. “Come on out, ‘Tika!” I cried, and ducked into the tack room. I’ve seen cows heave each other around, and you never want to be in the way.
However, the minute Katika’s head was free — cattle fight with their heads — Charlie deflated. Instead of the dashing Latin lover and his inamorata, I was suddenly looking at a chastened Opie and a furious Aunt Bea. He scampered out of the barn ahead of her, not even requiring a shove from her powerful neck. Once they were outside, I stood at the gate and called Katika in again, shutting the gate in Charlie’s face. Katika plodded back to her stanchion, her bag swinging. Hmph! Men!
I milked her out while Charlie bellowed love songs outside.
I considered leaving Katika in for the day, just for a rest from his plaguing, but did not. For one thing, he would undoubtedly bellow without ceasing and I have to think of the neighbors. For another, he just might decide to go through the electric fence or break the barn door in his fever to get to her. Third and finally, I do want Katika bred and at some point she will segue into “standing heat,” when she will not only stand for his attentions but welcome them.
So I turned Katika out again. When I left them this morning they were eating hay. Charlie was obsessed with trying to reach her hindquarters; she was determined not to let him. The only way to make sure of this was to face him constantly. So they were head to head, rotating in circles like the hands of a clock.
Lucy went with me to evening chores. I explained the situation. I let only Katika in for milking. Lucy fed the horses and then watched Charlie in the barn paddock. She reported, “He’s trying to mount Rocky!” (Rocky is my four-month steer calf.)
“Yes, he’s fairly frustrated.”
We turned out Katika.
“Now Katika is trying to mount Charlie!” Lucy said, horrified.
“Yes, she’s getting closer to standing heat and her hormones are telling her, I’m in love! and it makes them all a bit confused. She’ll probably get bred tonight.”
While dinner was cooking we looked up the dates on a cattle gestation calendar. Assuming she is bred tonight, our next calf will be due May 14. That will work out perfectly for drying Katika off when we go to Florida.
I’m relieved. I had been so pleased with Katika’s condition six months ago and now she is bony. Though all dairy cows are angular, Katika lost a great deal of weight after calving. I’ve been feeding her “like a race horse,” one of my friends observed, and she’s still thin — “milking off her back,” as the saying goes, putting the groceries into more milk instead of more flesh. I had worried that perhaps she wouldn’t cycle before Charlie’s date with destiny in September.
However, all this romantic kerfuffle reassures me that as long as Charlie is fertile, the deed will probably get done. If not tonight, then three weeks from now. Yay!