A cow mothers its calf.

Courtesy photo

A cow mothers its calf.

Parenting, cow style

A look at the relationship between cows and their calves


— The other afternoon, as I sat waiting for the stock tank to be filled with water, my attention was drawn to Sarah, an older Simmental cow, who came into the back part of the pasture and stood there bawling.

Her very lively 3-day-old calf was running and jumping, tail straight up in the air, across the pasture, up on a dirt pile and then back down again. Sarah didn't like it one bit.

First, she wanted the calf to stay with her, and second, she wanted to be in the other part of the pasture with the rest of the cows.

Sarah stood in one place and called to her calf, using a variety of bawling tones to let her calf know that she meant business. And I took a stab at translating her moos into human terms.

"Moo, moo. Come back here."

The calf paid no attention.

"Moo, moo, moo. Come back here right now."

The calf ran in the direction of two other calves, who also were playing.

"Moo, moo, moo! I mean it! Those calves are too old for you."

Sarah's bawling continued in this manner until a jogger passed by on the highway next to the pasture. To Sarah, that meant danger, so she walked towars her calf, the bawling more frantic.

"Mooh, mooh, mooh! Watch out! That creature might hurt you."

Finally, the calf ran up to her mother, skidded to a stop, and started to nurse.

And that's how I got to thinking about the ways cows parent their calves.

A cow has to feed, protect, and otherwise nurture her calf, and she doesn't have a playpen (to corral the calf), a stroller (to get it from one place to the other), or a time-out chair (to help the calf think about its actions).

So, the cow has to rely on other means to get the calf to do what she wants, mostly communicating by her bawling or, perhaps more accurately, the tone she uses. There's a difference in the tone of bawling between "Come home for supper now" and "Watch out for that dog."

And perhaps there's a cow language, too. For example, sometimes a cow will hide a newborn calf. If found, the calf will have its head stretched out flat on the ground, making itself as inconspicuous as possible.

It won't move.

Just how the cow tells her calf to "stay right there and don't move" is a mystery, but she does it.

Another way a cow parents her calf may have to do with instinct. In some way, the calf learns to go to the last place it nursed if lost from Mom. And that's where the cow finds it. Last summer, for example, we were moving cattle across the road, from one pasture to the other. We didn't realize, until it was too late, that four calves were lagging behind. By the time they got to the gate, there were no adults to follow, and the calves turned back.

One late summer calf, in particular, ran back and forth in the first pasture and paid no attention to its mother's bawling from across the road. Finally, the calf disappeared-back to the top of a hill where it had last nursed.

After awhile, the cow went back across the road, through the gate and started up the winding road to the top of the hill. It was a very hot day, and I'll never forget the look on the cow's face.

"Calf, why did you make me come all the way back over here?" is undoubtedly what she thought as she went to the top of the hill and retrieved the calf.

Sometimes, if the situation is serious enough, a cow will come to the house and bawl to us. Following her back into the pasture, we find a calf that won't nurse or is otherwise ill. Besides bawling out their instructions, cows find other ways to get calves to do what they want. The evening after Sarah had her calf, she maneuvered it into one corner of the loafing shed and then laid down diagonally across the corner so the calf couldn't get out and wander around.

To get a calf to follow her, a cow will get it to nurse, then start walking off, stop and let it nurse again, and so forth until she reaches her destination.

As calves get older, their mothers allow them more freedom.

That's when these older calves start forming little "gangs." The calves walk around, side by side, snooping out things in the pasture. Younger calves try to keep up, and it's their mothers' turn to worry.

It's parenting, cow-style.


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