what is a cow?
A cow is a completely automatic milk manufacturing machine. It is encased in untanned leather and mounted on four vertical moveable supports – one in each corner.
The front end contains a cutting and grinding mechanism as well as headlights, air inlet and exhaust, bumper and foghorn. At the rear is the dispensing apparatus and automatic fly-swatter. The centre portion houses a hydro chemical conversion plant.
The conversion plant consists of four fermentation storage tanks connected in series by an intricate network of flexible plumbing. The central section also contains the heating plant, complete with automatic temperature controls, pumping station and main ventilation system. The waste disposal apparatus is located at the rear of the central section.
In brief, the external features are: Two lookers, two hookers, four stander-uppers, four finger-downers and a swishy-wishy.
They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be timid, arrogant, highly intelligent ,dumb, friendly, aloof, placid or flighty. They can be hard workers or lazy idlers, stubborn, tough or soft sooks. Some are lovable, some are likeable and there are a few you can actually dislike to the point of hatred.
When we started out learning the ropes on our dairy farm, we wondered how we would ever recognise one cow over another. They all looked the same but then it became apparent that the udders were like fingerprints and we found ourselves referring to ‘the one with the long teats’ or ‘the one with two black teats’. It took a couple of weeks to come to the realisation that cows are like people with individual personalities and soon we were giving them names.
My first experience with a dairy cow was the jersey house cow I acquired when we were happily hobby farming. Dolly was stubborn, gentle, intelligent and loving and we understood each other perfectly. At piccaninny dawn I would go to the shed and call her. “Dolllllleeee,” and from the gully below her answer came wafting up, “Mooooh”. Ten minutes later and there was no sign of Dolly and I would repeat the call and receive an answer immediately that sounded a little closer. She was eating her way up to the shed.
Dolly would arrive after fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on where she happened to be when she heard my call. I’d put what I called her necklace on (it was a loop of string) which told her she had to stay put until I had finished milking her. I gave her a measure of grain-meal to eat and she had a lick block when she’d finished it. More often than not she would rest her nose on the block and snooze while I milked on. If I asked her to feed another calf she took it on and looked after it as she did her own.
When we took on dairying, Dolly joined the herd of friesians and immediately took her place as a bossy matriarch. My menfolk complained at having Dolly in the milking shed because of her pendulous udder and short legs which meant one almost had to lie on the floor to get the milking machine cups in place.
Soon after entering the dairy industry I had done a course to learn artificial insemination and I used this new skill to inseminate Dolly with jersey semen. She presented me with a delightful jersey heifer that first year. She became Little Dolly and had inherited her mother’s looks and temperament. She held her own against the bigger friesian heifers and we’d watch with delight her tactics to gain access to the grain feeder. She’d back up a few metres and then charge the black/white backsides which on impact, parted like the red sea for Moses, and she was in.
We began naming the cows in the herd as their personalities and idiosyncrasies were noticed and appreciated. No. 85 became Curly because as soon as settled herself in the bail she’d toss her tail up onto her rump in a nice circle. No. 517 became Rogue because she was always found where she shouldn’t be and No. 78 became Ultimate as my son declared she was so smart she knew the answer to the ultimate question (Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy). No. 76, a handsome black cow became Trombone (76 trombones in the Orchestra…) and later became the mother of Trumpet, Oboe, Clarinet, Cornet and Flugelhorn.
Naming the cows meant it was easier to remember and identify which heifer came from which cow. We had the Greek Alphabet. Alpha produced Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. Wombles was the mother of the flavoured milks: Moove, Choccy Moove and Hi-Lo. Biggus was the mother of Die Fledermaus but the operas got no further as Biggus had a run of bull calves.
Before the first year drew to a close all but one cow was named and answered to that name. No. 44 went from being a pushy cow to one who hung back at the rear of the herd to be among the last eight into the bails. I thought she was feeling left out because she remained un-named and one morning as she came in to the shed, I told her she would now be known as Mrs. Weeks because I couldn’t think of any other name.
That afternoon when the first wave were settled in the bails I leaned out over the rails and called to Mrs. Weeks. “Come on No. 44 you are now Mrs. Weeks, don’t hang back there.” Five minutes later there was Mrs. Weeks jostling and pushing to get into position at the gate. I opened it and let her in to wait. After that, Mrs. Weeks was never found hanging back and the bonus was her increased milk production.
A favourite in the herd, despite the trouble she often caused us, was a big tall black cow with a flighty temperament. You would always pick her out in the bunch because her head, with alert bulging eyes, was always sticking up from the surrounding backs as she scanned the horizon so as not to be caught unaware. My son used to call her Biggus Ninety and that name stuck. She knew immediately if we were up to something unusual no matter how we went out of our way to slip things like drenching or using pour-ons for ticks into the daily routine.
A new procedure came onto the market for worming. It entailed the use of a sort of gun which shot a thick needle directly into the rumen dispensing a dose of worm medicine at the same time. It was a three second procedure and the cows were given their shot before they left the bails after they were milked – all expect Biggus that is. Her head came up out of the feed bin and those bulging eyes stood out like sticks. With absolute split second timing, she jumped and the shot of worm drench splattered above the bail door as she made her escape.
Curly had the distinction of being my first maternity case. She came and bellowed as close as she could get to our bedroom window at 2.30 am one morning. There was no ignoring her calls that were loud enough to wake the dead so I donned my overalls, picked up the torch and went to see what was wrong. Curly began heading for the bails as soon she saw me approaching so all I had to do was open the gates for her and follow. Once there I plunged my arm into a bucket of disinfectant and smeared it with a good slosh of lubricant and ventured into the warm depths of the vagina to find the problem. Luckily for me and for Curly it was not a difficult one – a minor mal-presentation where one foreleg is folded back and caught under the pelvic rim. I was able to push the calf back, straighten out the leg and bring it and the other one up into position. No soon was this done than Curly gave a huge push and the head popped out. I pulled on the legs while she continued pushing and the calf suddenly slipped out and landed with a splosh on the floor.
I had just enough time to grab the calf’s legs and pull it to one side as Curly backed out to inspect the fruit of her labours. It was a beautiful big black heifer calf and I felt so proud because I had artificially inseminated her with semen from one of Australia’s top AI bulls. I told Curly how delighted I was and how clever she was. For that praise I had my arm sandpapered with a big wet tongue. Curly’s calf was called Duchess and she would prove to be one of our most intelligent and lovable girls as well as the mother of three of our best cows, graded Excellent for milk production and conformation.
Katrina must have been a burglar in an earlier life. She was adept at opening gates and to stop her breaking and entering (with the whole herd behind her) we had to add a wire tie to each gate latch. There were several different types of closing mechanisms on gates on the farm and she had worked out how to open them all.
Ultimate was the herd’s electric fence tester. Once a cow gets to know that electric fences ‘bite’ they respect them whether they are on or off, but not Ultimate. Every couple of days you would see her go up to the electric wire and touch it with her nose – if she got a jolt she retreated and that was that, but if she didn’t get a jolt she’d either push the post over and walk in (with the rest of the herd hard on her heels) or simply continue on her way taking the wire with her as it unreeled.
One day No.1 son, Phillip, threatened Ultimate with a one-way ticket to the sale yards. After he had put the herd back on the right side of the fence and re-set it, he had to ride about 200 metres to turn the electricity back on. Ultimate waited until he was about 50 metres away before she’d knock the post over and they were through once again. It was the fourth time before he blew his top – he tried to evict her and she dodged him with ease, kicking her heels up as if it was a big game. Strangely though, she must have known the consequences would be dire if she did it again so she very calmly went and began to graze the designated strip.
We bought Marlene and four others at a dispersal sale. When John was loading them onto the truck for the journey home, her previous owner’s small boy was watching a little sadly. “You’ve got Marlene, Mister. She’s our very favourite cow.” John assured him we would love her and look after her so as we drove away, he waved and there was a smile on his face.
The reason Marlene was a favourite cow soon became apparent. Her temperament was laid back and placid. She loved being stroked, brushed and talked to. Anyone could walk up to her in the paddock and stroke her or even
put a pail underneath and hand milk her where she stood. She was happy to have small children ride on her back. She gave us four lovely heifers that inherited her temperament.
Marlene’s first calf we called Munny and she was followed by Gemma, Jemima Shaw and Petula. These are memorable girls not only for their temperament and good milk production but because there was no way on earth either one of them would be ‘driven’. They would happily follow though. The first time we came up against this peculiarity was with Munny when she was about 8 months old and we were taking her group out of the ‘kindy enclosure’ and up to the ‘primary school paddock’. The route to the primary school paddock meant we had to cross a shallow running stream and the group of heifers baulked and refused to cross. However, we managed to persuade them all except Munny who resisted every attempt so that for half an hour or more, we pulled, pushed, slapped and yelled, inch by inch and finally got her over the other side.
Exhausted now, we went back to get the three that had returned while we were dealing with Munny and were astonished when Munny followed us quite unconcerned. She followed us over again as we shooed her mates across. She would follow but not be pushed. It used to amuse our neighbours to see us driving our herd from here to there with two, three or four cows walking beside us or at our heels like overgrown dogs.
Little Dolly often caused some amusment as she reached maturity. She was pretty much a clone of her mother and incredibly stubborn. I asked my boys to bring her up and let her run with the herd so I could AI (artificially inseminate) her when came into season. Sometime later I heard the tractor horn blowing and went out to see if there was a problem. Phillip was driving the tractor which was towing the trailer we used to dispense hay to the cows in the night paddock. Standing in the trailer with Geoff grinning widely with his hand on her shoulder, was Little Dolly looking for all the world like Queen Victoria. She refused to walk up the hill we called Cardiac Pass so the boys went down with the tractor, tipped the trailer so it was about six inches above the ground and Little Dolly walked on and got a ride home.
There were so many characters in the herd over the years. Duchess learned how to count and dispense extra grain to herself as she was milking. By now we had a new Herringbone Shed. We pulled a cord to dispense a serve of grain to all twelve bins at the same time. There were also individual cords for each bin so that we could give more grain to the fresher cows. Duchess used to go to the dairy about half an hour before milking time and pull the master cord to fill all twelve bins. Then she ate her way from No.12 bin up to No.1 bin. When she’d cleaned it all up she walked out and joined the herd to await the call for milking. Now came her piece de resistance – she would stand at the bails entrance and let eleven cows pass her so that she got the number twelve position. When she had eaten her serve of grain, she would ease her ample rump out from behind the barrier and, without disturbing the cups, would edge back far enough to take hold of the cord with her tongue and pull it to give herself another serve of grain.
I used semen from beef bulls to inseminate those cows we did not want to keep heifers from. I used Murray Greys or Angus bulls because the calves were small and unlikely to cause calving problems. I took a liking to the Murray Greys and began rearing small groups of heifers. One of these was a character and I called her MG. I sold the others with a calf at foot, but I couldn’t part with MG. My menfolk complained and said I couldn’t have an ornament on the farm; it was a business and so on, so when she had her calf (which we lost it after a difficult calving which left MG with calving paralysis) I put her in the milking herd. Because of her paralysis from which she was still recovering, I hand milked her for a few days. I was taking her into the bails the first afternoon and she baulked at walking on the concrete and ended up doing the splits.
“Mum,” my son said with annoyance, “it is no good mucking around with that dumb animal! Send her to the sale yards.”
I thought about this, almost in tears at the thought of selling her and got a bright idea. I found a piece of rope and hobbled her back legs so she couldn’t do the splits if she slipped. The blokes shook their heads and refused to even help me. However, MG took a few tentative steps, felt secure so walked nicely across the concrete yard and into the bails. When she finished milking and the gate opened to let her out she did so with confidence and then waited for me to come and undo her hobbles. This was a routine that amused the blokes as well as visitors for the weeks it took MG to recover fully from her paralysis.
It was the interaction between human and animal that made the long hard slog of dairying enjoyable. Our cows were like extended family. By the time we exited the industry, I had reared more than two hundred of the two hundred and eighty cows and calves that made up our herd. Each and every one had a name as well as their herd number, and each and every one answered to her name. It broke my heart to hold the dispersal sale and see my girls go. I know some found loving homes and I hope the others were happy in their new herds.