Cow watching may sound to you a bit like paint drying, but believe me it’s akin to a soap opera. And herd dynamics are totally fascinating. This is a short précised post on a subject I could wax lyrical on!
Ours is a closed herd. This means I don’t buy in any cattle except for a bull about every three years. It’s well established through the female line with daughters, grand-daughters and great grand-daughters now running in the herd. I do my best, within the limitations of our land, management and so forth, to respect the animals’ natural behaviour.
Jennifer and Julie governed the herd in tandem for many years. They had set roles. Jennifer was the traditional matriarch, the top-ranking cow, and Julie the ‘scout’ cow – it was she who would decide where and when the herd should move. Unfortunately Julie is no longer with us and this, along with the sale of some older cows, upset the social order. Jennifer lost her confidence for about a year, but has since re-established herself as head cow with another governing body, consisting of Desiree, Severn and Warbler.
High ranking or senior cows are much more confident, if sometimes rather aloof towards their herdsman. He or she (the herdsman) has to establish a place in the herd too; ideally at the top of the tree! Since I’m tiny beside the cows, weighing less than a tenth of their bulk, I need to ensure they respect me (without fearing me) so I can manage, move or treat them on my own. Nowadays I’m able to separate off a single cow and calf from the herd and lead them away, demonstrating the degree of trust that has developed over the years.
Interestingly the bull acts only as a visual and audio deterrent. He’s the herds’ ‘ego’. Out there ready to shout and display himself in his full glory if there’s any threat or excitement. But he has no say in the running of the herd. This is a matriarchal society. Our current bull is huge and impressive but has the character of a rather bumptious schoolboy…the young calves enjoy teasing him without fear of reprisal!
If I take a cow or two away from the herd for more than a few days, on returning them fights will break out as the cows test each other’s strength and will, and redefine their place in the pecking order. Things soon quieten down, and from then on confrontations over choice grazing or lying space are avoided as subordinates simply walk away with little more than a look or nudge from higher ranking individuals.
Calves from high ranking cows are generally more outgoing and confident than their peers. When daughters come back into the main herd as bulling heifers they demonstrate a mature calmness. Though still at the bottom of the herd’s social structure they don’t exhibit nervousness when in direct confrontation with superiors. After their second calf they usually begin to test and take on roles of government. Hermione, one of Desiree’s daughters, has just started acting as a scout cow – shouting and walking the gateway to let me know that the grass is running short.
Some of my friends may think me odd with my passion for leaning on gates and watching cattle, and I am of course, but with good reason!
PS – In the photo of Jennifer you can see her four year old daughter (2nd calver), Heather, in the background. This year she has started to watch her mother’s reactions closely in different situations. As you can see from the picture she’s showing particular interest in Jennifer’s reaction to having her photo taken!