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Getting a heifer to listen to reason

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That bit about leading a horse to water, lent a slight twist of focus, might have been said of young heifers: You can lead one to shelter from a storm, but you can't make her cross that welcoming threshold. And at 200 pounds (give or take a flashing hoof's weight), Betsy wasn't about to get a ceremonial lift over, either.

It was New Year's Day, and I wanted to get her into a barn pen before the predicted severe storm struck. Betsy had spent more than half her life - the entire summer and uncommonly mild fall - in a roomy outside paddock, sleeping on an open hay bed under a simple, slanting roof. This dry nest would soon be uninhabitable, covered in blowing snow and ice.

Cows can weather a storm outside, if they are fed well. They bunch in a sheltered spot and stand like stoic statues, moving only for water, and from one feeding and milking to the next. They are different from heifers (female prepubescent bovines) in many other respects. You can talk to a cow and explain a situation, not so much with words as with gestures and tones embedded in clear contexts.

Once, for example, after Hannah calved at the farthest edge of the back pasture, I left her to tend her damp and leggy bundle under the sunny skies. I could bring them in together with the other cows at day's end, when the little calf was sure on her legs.

Time got away from me that day, and dusk was gathering when I went for the cows. I found Hannah grazing peaceably at the edge of the farm's backing forest, but she'd sequestered the calf in some private pocket of the edge brush. I began a quick search that proved fruitless. With night swiftly closing in, I returned to Hannah, cupped her tawny muzzle in my hands, and spoke crisply: "Take me to her." She blinked, turned, and did just that.


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