A really superior species



Somebody said something to my lady wife along the lines of, “Would Jim be interested in these?” I think the person was talking about horses, or sheep, or something. My lady wife looked at what was being talked about and said, “Oh no, he’s a cowman.”

So having dairy cows back is nice. Not my cows, but still, they weren’t my sheep, I’m just playing the gracious host. But it’s good to have them about the place again.

I’ve always liked working with cattle. Suckler cows are fine, calves and stirks are just like dealing with kids. They can be cute and they can be little horrors as well. But when you’re dealing with dairy cows you’re dealing with ladies far more grown up than a lot of people you’ll meet.

What I like about cows is their unabashed curiosity. Old or young they’ll still all wander across to see what’s going on. Sal rolls on the grass to freshen up and as she sits up, three cows will be sniffing her.
They’re also very accepting. We put them through a new milking parlour. (Well they’d never seen it before, or anything like it.) The first time through there was considerable hesitation, everything had to be sniffed, but then they discovered the feed and suddenly things seemed to make more sense to them. Second time through the parlour, about one in six was still a little hesitant. After a couple of days, this was all old hat and they were at home in it.

In fact after three or four days they’d worked out the new routine and had settled perfectly happily to a new home.

But what is interesting is that cows obviously do think about things. One or two worked out that if they went back the wrong way after they’d been milked, it was surprising how much feed they’d find that somebody else had missed.

Frankly this can be a pain in the proverbial because whilst they’re trying to go back, it’s against the flow. So you have cows meeting in a relatively narrow passage and there’s this clash of wills.

It’s also interesting to look at cows coping with automatic feeders. We’ve never had them, but I know people who do. The cow wears a collar with a computer chip. She goes to the feeder, the computer looks at how much concentrate feed the cow is entitled to and gives her some. The idea is that the cow eats a little and often. It’s better for her digestion. Now in late lactation she’s getting all the nutrition she needs from grass and/or silage, so she doesn’t need concentrate. So when she goes into the automatic feeder, the computer says ‘No,’ and she doesn’t get anything.

At this point cows have been known to butt the feeder. Not a major blow, more a nudge, just to wake the feeder up and remind it of its responsibilities.

Some of the early ones weren’t designed with this in mind and it was discovered that the cow could effectively ‘get round’ the computerised delivery system by just shaking the feeder so feed dropped into the trough anyway. It hadn’t taken them long for some of them to work this out, and when a cow shakes something, it is pretty comprehensively shaken.

Other cows realised that if the feeder wasn’t feeding you, it might still feed somebody else. So they would let another cow in, wait for the sound of feed falling into the trough, and then try and push the other cow out. As you can imagine, decent automatic feeders are designed to be seriously robust.

If cows have a mental failing it is that they seem to assume that if they can get their head through, the rest of their body will follow. Unfortunately they’re wedge shaped. The head goes through, the neck isn’t a problem, and then you come to the shoulders.

It has to be said that with a cow weighing over half a ton, their assumption isn’t an entirely unreasonable one. It’s surprising what does give when they start casually trying to squeeze through.


Not much about cows, but still, it has a really superior dog in charge



as one reviewer said

“This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

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24 thoughts on “A really superior species

  1. Liz Wright August 24, 2018 at 6:34 pm Reply

    Jim I really like this one can we use this one sometime?

    • jwebster2 August 24, 2018 at 6:53 pm Reply

      I can spread it out to a full article if you want?

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 24, 2018 at 7:35 pm Reply

    I love the way you grok your animals – and cows sound quite smart. Let’s just not engineer them for opposable thumbs, okay?

    • jwebster2 August 24, 2018 at 7:41 pm Reply

      the money would be better spent providing proper education for all people, not just the children of nice people 😦

    • rootsandroutes2012 August 28, 2018 at 1:37 pm Reply


      • jwebster2 August 28, 2018 at 2:29 pm

        I’m pretty sure Douglas Adams has one of his characters use the word, I assumed he’d invented it but it could be from the US 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 28, 2018 at 5:40 pm

        Never read Stranger in a Strange Land?

        To grok is to thoroughly understand something, as if from the inside. And more. Maybe you’re not old enough for Heinlein. 🙂

      • jwebster2 August 28, 2018 at 9:07 pm

        I’ve read Heinlein but never that one

      • rootsandroutes2012 August 29, 2018 at 4:38 am

        Thank you Alicia. I’ve done a little googling, and I discover that ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ was published in the same year as I was born 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 29, 2018 at 3:30 pm

        As I said… But ‘grok’ made it into the language; you should be able to google it.

  3. M T McGuire August 24, 2018 at 10:35 pm Reply

    Love it.

  4. patriciaruthsusan August 27, 2018 at 4:58 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    About cows and a book about a superior dog.

    • jwebster2 August 27, 2018 at 5:19 am Reply

      on this blog we deal only with the very best 🙂

  5. rootsandroutes2012 August 28, 2018 at 1:41 pm Reply

    I was just pondering on the idea that kids “can be cute and they can be little horrors as well”… and then I realised that you might not be referring to the hircine variety!

  6. rootsandroutes2012 August 28, 2018 at 2:45 pm Reply

    I’m not sure of the source, Jim, but having given up on the lazy route, I’ve now checked, and it means ‘establish a rapport’. I think that counts as a compliment 🙂

    • jwebster2 August 28, 2018 at 3:06 pm Reply

      yes that’s the meaning Douglas Adams obvious had in mind 🙂

  7. Cynthia Reyes September 14, 2018 at 8:02 pm Reply

    This is very engaging, Jim. Congrats. I shall put your book on my gift list for Christmas.

    An awkward question for you: you are obviously very fond of cows and calves and see their intelligence. How does that affect your feelings about them as food for humans?

    • jwebster2 September 14, 2018 at 8:53 pm Reply

      I can answer it at two levels, if they weren’t food for humans, they wouldn’t exist at all. There’s a photograph on my latest blog post of a string of Brazilian combines, that is the scenery without livestock.
      But at another level most farmers I know have a deep belief, rarely if ever spoken, that there is a deal done. Yes they end up as food, but our part of the deal is that while they’re with us, we look after them.
      In the flooding a few years ago I know of a case of a dairy farmer who went down to where his cattle were housed. Flood water was pouring through the building and he couldn’t get his cattle out, but he stayed with them because his presence might have calmed them a little and he’d rather die with them than abandon them.
      Farmers tend to be harsh on those who they find abusing livestock, even other farmers.
      They’re not pets, more co-workers. To be flippant a moment, I’m sure most people can think of co-workers who they’d never miss if they went as well as those they’re quite fond of.
      But at the end of the day, we don’t abandon our charges in old people’s homes to stare at the wall, lost and incontinent.
      Even with a pet, the day comes when you finally have to nod to the vet and ask for your friend to be put down. Death walks with me and has since I was sixteen.
      There again, I’ve done bluidy stupid things to keep them alive 🙂

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