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The Limber Cunning Of Cows

Rooke's face at the entranceway to the milking parlor came as a jolt.

"I just milked you ... didn't I?" I asked aloud, having long ago gotten in the habit of talking to my cows. She blinked and stood her ground, clearly expecting the short bar to be raised, granting her access to her favorite middle stanchion. I mentally checked off the cows that had been through already: Gemini, Hannah, Molly, Rosie, Juniper, and yes, Brooke. She should be in the barnlot with the others, not back inside the barn. But there she undeniably was, slack-bagged yet eager for another pass through the parlor, another scoop of grain. I glanced outside. The gate on the south end of the barn was firmly shut and locked, the long metal bar across the west-facing opening to the cow yard firmly in place. How had she gotten back in?

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Over the past six years of dairy farming, I have cultivated a deep respect for self-serving bovine cunning. Gary Larson's cartoons of talking cows with scheming, slightly Machiavellian personalities speak to me more than popular visions of plodding, slow-witted herd beasts. I know cows scheme. Watching them graze and mill about, I can see the wheels turning. They ponder access to the grain, the lush suburban lawns across the road, the fenced-off hayfield thick with alfalfa. Occasionally, the pondering smolders with potential. A slack or rusted strand of barbed wire is noted and quietly worked with bent, hard-boned heads. A sudden give, and they're off. Not like racehorses, mind you, but cows on a mission move at a pretty good clip.

So the second morning that Brooke reappeared among the unmilked cows, with all the airs of a lady in waiting, I wasn't wholly surprised. She'd found an angle, a way back in. I had no idea what it was, but now I had a mission, too.

The third morning, I kept my eye on her as she exited the parlor. She drank long at the water tank, then stood endlessly basking in the warm sun. Her ears flicked lazily at flies. I began getting bored with this and eager to get on with my milking. I filled the stanchions with grain, adjusted the head locks, and walked down the runway to let three more cows into the parlor.

Brooke! She was again waiting to be milked, having gotten back in and already worked her way to the head of the line. Once more I shouldered her back.

The morning after that, it rained. I milked Brooke, and she exited to the cold drizzle of the barnyard. This time, though, in her hurry to return she forgot to wait until my back was turned. I watched as she approached the barrier bar, sank to her knees and, halfway buckling her back legs, flexed her spine to lower her rump. Then, with a series of side-to-side wriggles, she inched herself under the bar, clearing it by a hair, and into the barn.

Something in the way she moved - that athletic flex of her back - awakened the memory of a night years ago, in the Bahamas. I was watching a group of young men compete for crowd approval by dancing toward and flexing backward under a low wooden bar. I could almost hear the limbo beat.

I might have let it go, allowed this cow her little triumph. But within a short time, two more cows appeared back in the barn after I'd milked them. Soon the whole herd would learn the steps. As a first countermeasure I lowered the bar.

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If they manage to wriggle under it now, I still have two options. I can concede defeat and build a gate. Or I can hire some musicians and sell tickets. Cows may outwit us now and then, but there's more than one way to milk them. Gary and I know.

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