Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Cow Says Moo: A Primer

If you didn't grow up on the farm and get your cow learnin' the old-fashioned way, what you learn about cows usually comes from books and the cows you see at the zoo. Someone reads you a book and says, "Now what does the cow say?" to which you are supposed to reply, "Moo." There are illustrations of bulls with pointed horns and cows wearing gold bells. And most of these cows are black and white and grazing in a clover-filled pasture. You discover that milk comes from cows, and sometimes they live in barns with their friends the sheep and pigs. Not entirely inaccurate, but quite incomplete.

When you're a bit older, you might hear a rumor that if you push on a cow's belly while it is sleeping, it will fall over and that this hilarious practice is called "cow tipping."

Later in life, you might get the "Meat is Murder!" education where you come to understand the dark and horrible truth behind industrial farming and the slaughtering process. You may choose to ignore these tales and continue to gnaw on your steak, or stop eating meat altogether, or go a step further and set out on a crusade to save all cattle from further pain and suffering. Maybe you'll even set fire to a MacDonald's. To people who might be inclined to take that route toward cow appreciation, you are welcome to do whatever you please, as long as you don't hurt anyone. I'm not writing this in judgment of your actions.

I am simply writing this to set the record straight about cows because, far too often, I hear someone say, "Look at that cow!" when it's really a bull or hear the term "heifer" being thrown around willy-nilly. And this is a travesty. We rely a great deal upon cows. I believe it is only polite to get to know them better.

So here are some important facts about cows for people who are perhaps a bit less-informed. If you already know these things, feel free to scroll down to the bottom and collect your certificate in the field of cowology.

1. Bulls are not cows.

When a calf is born, if it is a female, it is called a "heifer." If it is a male, it is called a "bull." At around two or three years of age, you can start referring to a heifer as a cow. When a bull is still quite young, someone will determine whether or not it is of good enough breeding to be allowed to procreate. If not, it will be castrated. After that time, it is known as a steer (or a bullock if you're a Brit). Most males end up as steers. "Cattle" is a general term that describes the animals collectively.

2. Calves are born feet first.

Cows can give birth laying down or standing up. It's very gushy and not at all like you might have seen in the movie CITY SLICKERS. For details on the actual process and how things can go wrong, read James Herriott's All Creatures Great and Small and be glad you don't have to put your hand in a cow's birth canal for a living.

2. Cattle are lazy.

No one ever makes a charmingly sweet movie about a little boy and his best cow friend. Why? Because cows aren't action animals. You want action? You get a horse. You want chutzpah? You get a piglet. You want milling around pointlessly pecking at things? You get a chicken. But you certainly don't get a cow. For the most part, cows are boring. And they like it that way.

3. Cows are good mothers.

A cow will fight anything that messes with her baby. It doesn't matter if it's a human or a predator. Cows sometimes babysit for each other because calves like to get into mischief.

4. Cattle come in all types and colors.

Angus cattle are black, Herefords are red and white, Charolais are pure white. But there are many, many other kinds. The three listed above are raised to be butchered for meat. Guernseys and Holsteins, on the other hand, are a few examples of types of cattle that are raised for dairy production. By nature, both of these breeds produce more milk than beef cattle breeds. You can milk beef cattle, but it will only confuse and possibly anger them.

5. Cow tipping is a myth.

Cows sleep laying down unless there is no room to do so. However, you can tip a cow for good service by giving it a handful of alfalfa. They like that. If someone tells you that he has been cow tipping, he is a big, fat liar.

6. Cows can kill you.

Despite their generally peaceful nature, there are some cows you will happily trample you to death. If a cow is running toward you with the look of crazy in her eyes, run. Alternately, there are very gentle bulls who are quite unlikely to even look at you twice much less cause you harm.

7. Cows are curious.

If you stand close to a pen containing a large group of cows, they will probably sniff and possibly lick you to see if you are edible. Cows have surprisingly pleasant breath and very raspy toungues.

8. Some bulls don't have horns. Some cows do.

Again, it's all about the breed. Some farmers have cows dehorned. Some don't. A sprouting horn is called a "horn bud." They can be cut or burned off. Burning is more humane but stinkier.

So, that concludes my lesson for today. I hope that with this information, you will know what to do if you happen upon a cow on a dark road in the middle of the night. Maybe you'll pull over and milk it. Maybe you'll see the look of crazy in its eyes and drive away as fast as you can. As long as you don't try to tip it over and run away giggling, I think you'll be fine.

(Okay, I lied about the cowology certificates. Apologies.)


lalaland13 said...

I spent a lot of time with cows growing up. Or not cows, sorry. Bulls. Cattle. Heifers. I spent a lot of time at my grandpa's place in Oklahoma, which had cattle. And I have seen more varieties of cow poo than I care. God, just thinking about it I can smell it.

And I've often been scared of them. Because they're huge! And you can't tell what's going on in their head.

Oh gosh and me and my relatives would play in the creek that cows walked through. How did I not get some terrible disease?

And our little poodles would run furiously at the cattle, barking at them and trying to kill them. Miracle they didn't get killed.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

You should only be scared of some of them. Most cows are pretty gentle. Some bulls are really only dangerous when a cow in heat is around somewhere.

And, according to my dad, you can get WORMS from playing in water around cows. WORMS! WORMS! WORMS!

My dad likes to say WORMS!

Katie said...

Oh, and also, when someone says that their meat is "certified Angus," that really doesn't mean shit, because it's just a breed and it has very little to do with the quality of the meat.

Also, cattle are slobbery. Ew.

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

Very, very, very true.

Cattle are indeed slobbery and frequently put their tongues into their own noses in order to clean them out. DELICIOUS!

Greta said...

Ladd and I discovered at a young age, much to our narcissistic joy, that cattle will listen to long-winded speeches with awe and fascination. I can't imagine how many dollars could be saved if people would just blab their mother issues to cattle instead of overpriced psychiatrists who don't really listen. Not like the cows do.

jody! said...

i like that a terrible article that i sent beth from some UK publication spawned her need to educate the world. go forth, beth! we need more posts like this. i need to know what to believe in this world.

thank you.

wanna start a cattle ranch/farm with me?

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

@Greta: So true. Because everything you say sounds like food to them.

@jody!: Yes. Let's. Bring some cobbler in case someone charges.

jody! said...

so that's a no to a cattle farm with me?

i'm telling someone you called her a cow. (not a heifer or a steer or a bull... a cow. see! i learned!)

The Honorable Mayor of Bethville said...

I'll keep some cobbler close by just in case she comes after me.

I'd ranch with you any day.


Anonymous said...

Damn you, Mayor. Every time I see cattle, I will think of only you. (And will probably shoot whatever I am drinking at the moment out of my nose. Thanks in advance.)