Teaching Cows to Count

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Cows have a 9-month gestation so it is a long wait from conception to birth. This is anticipatory interval is expected, but farmers and ranchers are always hoping too that they have fertile cows and bulls. It is tragic and costly in the livestock industry for a cow to not render a calf each year. While livestock folk figure on a 10-20% loss each year, the loss of even one hurts. Sometimes this loss is made up for by the production of twins. We had one cow who carried this genetic strain so the double delivery year after year was exciting and helped fill the ratio gap.

The delivery of twins also taught me about cows and math. It appears that nature has endowed cows with the ability to count to one and not beyond. So when the first calf tumbles out of the womb, Mama turns around and licks it dry while encouraging it to latch onto her utter to nurse. In the meantime a second calf might drop to the gorund, but Mama, delighted with one is quite likely to walk away with the first born and ignore the arrival of the second. We always had to be ready for this because of the vulnerability of calves during those first hours after birth. Sometimes Mama could be turned and sort of herded toward the second calf, but at other times a more forceful union was required. This included shoving the calf forward, trying to mark the baby with Mama’s scent so the cow could recognize and accept it, and generally spending the day reuniting the family. Eventually the mother of twins will accept that there are two, but at times she will forget and leave one in the meadow and one in the corn and only wailing bellows will bring all three together again.

Sometimes a calf might arrive and the Mama falls ill, does not lactate, or will not accept the calf. You would think you could fool another lactating cow by just urging the new calf on her, but again, cows count to one. “I have my baby. Who is this freeloader?” Again, with great encouragement and determination a second calf might “take” but more likely it is labeled a Leppie and this calf has to be bottle fed and babied. We did not have many of these but when we did, those calves really became pets, following us around as feeding time neared and springing into action when a bottle appeared. Calves make excellent devoted companions, however with age comes size and 800 pound buddies are difficult to handle.


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