The comfort of cows

by Gene Lyons

When the weather gets really awful, as it normally does in January around here, I find myself yearning for the companionship of cows. “Around here” is Arkansas, where my wife and I lived on a cattle farm in Perry County for nine years until her eyesight went bad and we had to move back to town.

“You cain’t keep no Little Rock girl on a gravel road if she cain’t drive,” my neighbor George opined. No kidding. We’d have spent all our time bickering about me driving her to the city for various girlfriend activities, doctor appointments, etc.

Nobody in Perry County ever mistook her for a country girl. When a 10-year-old neighbor girl had mixed feelings after shooting her first deer, she drove straight to Diane on her four-wheeler.

“He never done nothing to me,” she cried, “and I kilt him.”

The kid got over it, and we never told her folks about it.

Diane loved it out on the farm, and particularly enjoyed feeding apple slices out of her hand to Bernie the bull, all 2,400 muscular pounds of him. As fond as Bernie was of walking through barbed wire fences, pushing the neighbor’s bull around and breeding his cows, he was careful around Diane.

But George was right. Deprived of mobility, the place would have felt like a 40-acre prison to her.

George was the county cow-whisperer, the go-to guy when you had a problem you couldn’t handle. He and his partner, Tyler, would turn up whenever you called, hauling whatever equipment they needed to set you right. Best of all, they worked for pay, which made things simpler. As an apprentice redneck, I needed their help.

Especially come January.

If you’re going to have a cow melodrama, chances are it will involve bad weather. One emergency I did manage on my own took place during a winter storm featuring freezing rain and 30 mph winds. The barometer drops, and pregnant cows go into labor.

Suzanne, a particularly lovely, sweet-natured animal who enjoyed having her ears scratched, chose to deliver her calf out in the open, next to the hay ring where she and her girlfriends were chowing down on a round bale I’d put out. They eat pretty much nonstop in frigid weather. A half-dozen cows will make a 1,200-pound round bale disappear in four or five days.

Something had to be done. Wet with afterbirth, the calf would never survive until morning lying in the sleet and wind. So I told Diane to keep watch just in case. Filled with hormones, even the gentlest cow can be terribly dangerous if she thinks you’re a threat to her newborn. If Suzanne got me down, Diane might need to phone George.

But Suzanne trusted me. She let me pick up the slippery 85-pound heifer, carry it backward through a nearby gate and kick the gate shut in her face. Then she pivoted and ran clear around the barn to the only stall not occupied by horses. By the time I arrived carrying the little heifer we named Violet, Suzanne was waiting expectantly.

How she knew where I was going was almost as much a mystery as why she hadn’t given birth there to begin with. But sometimes it does feel as if cows can read your mind. They’re far more intelligent than people think, although stubborn, which humans often equate with stupidity.

Suzanne doubtless felt more secure in the herd. Cows are extremely social; all decisions are group decisions and they dislike being alone. As soon as Violet could stand and nurse, mother and daughter rejoined the others at the hay ring. They are remarkably resilient animals.

About a year later, I sold Violet to a fellow who was so taken with her beauty that he kept her in a pen near the house where he could pet her. I couldn’t have Bernie impregnating his daughters, so when they approached breeding age, they had to go.

Mine was basically a boutique operation, thoroughbred Fleckvieh Simmental cows worth far more as breeding stock than as beef cattle.

Ultimately, Bernie’s fence-trampling made him increasingly unpopular among my neighbors. I called Violet’s new owner, who’d expressed an interest in buying him. He said he couldn’t afford him, but asked if I’d take Violet back as half the sales price. Done.

Violet and Suzanne recognized each other at 100 yards the moment she stepped out of the cattle trailer. If you didn’t know, you might have thought they were twins. They galloped together and began licking and nuzzling each other like what they were — a mother and daughter cruelly separated and reunited.

I like to cried, as people in Perry County say.

And I still miss the company of cows and the people who raise them.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner. Email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.