Cow and Calf

I write a weekly Q&A science column for local newspapers. A question was asked, “In a large herd of cows and calves, how does the mother cow know which one is her calf?”

I harken back to my 1950s days on the Seneca farm, so I’m appending a bit from the Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers book.

“Most of the time our cows would freshen and have a calf in the barn. But sometimes if the cows wandered into the woods bordering the pasture, we would have to go look for the calf. The knoll field was a pasture that had extensive woods bordering the tillable field. The half-acre knoll was close to the farm buildings and had an outcropping of rock among a dozen tall oak trees. The spot provided an ideal location for us to play hide-and-seek or crack walnuts for making home-made fudge. It also served as a refuge for a farm boy who just wanted to get away from siblings and sit and talk with his pet dog.

Once when we brought the cows in for milking, one of them turned up missing. Phillip, Bob and I were sent off to find it. My brother Phillip was a year older than me, and Bob was a year and half younger.

Even though we yelled, “Here cow, here cow,” we did not get a response. We held a pow-wow. We pretended to be cows and tried to think like one. We imagined where we would want to hide if we were bringing a little calf into the world.

Phillip thought of the deep woods below the old potato patch. “There’s a lot of sumac there, just the place for a cow to give birth.”

Bob said that he’d search the woods over by the Cruzan fence line. I headed for the woods below the big cottonwood trees.

We searched for about 20 minutes before Phillip yelled, “She’s over here.” Cows keep places like this, among the sumac, a secret and do not like anyone knowing where they’re hiding.

The cow was licking her newborn calf, a ritual that we had witnessed many times before. We knew that the calf should start nursing very soon and helped it get its footing. The Hereford’s brown and white fur was soft and silky. But when I reached toward its mouth, the calf licked my fingers with a tongue that felt like sandpaper.

Bob said, “Let’s call her Patches,” because of the brown fur on her white forehead.

Phillip and I could not argue with that. Patches started to nurse, and the bonding between mother and infant began. We waited ten minutes before we herded them back to the barn. Patches wobbled slowly, so Phillip picked her up and cradled her in his arms. The mother trailed close behind. I am still amazed at how soon a calf can get up and walk after it is born. Whereas most humans take about a year, calves are up and about in less than an hour.”



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