On Thursday, we added the newest members to our farm: 7 steers that we purchased from Steve Derebacher, a friend who has been raising grass-fed cattle for many years. Andrew had a new spring in his step walking back to the house that night–he’s been dreaming of this day for almost as long as I’ve known him. It was an unseasonably wet and cold day when the cows arrived last week, and the tall grass soaked my pants as I walked out to welcome them. Still skittish in their new home after what must have been a confusing trailer ride, the cows bunched under the tree line and looked me over nervously. I paused to enjoy the sight of them wading through the grass, bobbing their heads with every step. More now than ever, I could feel the systems of our farm falling into sync–cows mowing the grass for chickens, pigs rooting up covercrops to make space for vegetables. And all the animals marshalled against our nemesis: the thistles.
The next morning, as Sylvan and I were eating breakfast, my cell phone rang.
“Can you come out here?” Andrew asked from the other end. “The cows are out.”
Andrew’s laconic description failed to do justice to our cows’ apparent drive to explore. Having busted through their fence at some point in the night, they had wandered to the farthest possible corner of the farm. I found them there, massed by the gate, as though expectant that we would lead them on to further adventures.
Graham had already beaten me up the hill, and since I had Sylvan with me, Andrew sent me back down to the truck. I was instructed to park the truck just past the turn into the cows’ field and wait. Andrew and Graham would to herd the cows back down along the fenceline. My job was the turn them back into their field.
And I waited.
And I wondered just how late to market I would be.
Sylvan figured out how to honk the horn, which he greatly enjoyed.
The only clue as to what was transpiring beyond the crest of the hill came from Patou’s tail, which moved back and forth like a fluffy white banner. Bear in mind that Patou is a guard dog, rather than a herding dog. While herding is a modified predator action–the herding dog moves into an animal’s flight zone with the express intent of sending the prey animal in a particular direction–guarding is characterized by a desire to hang out with the livestock. While that makes Patou an awesome dog to take with you for chicken chores (he doesn’t spook the broilers and send them into chicken hysterics), it makes him less than ideal for a cattle moving operation. While Graham and Andrew tried to herd the cows down the hill, Patou kept walking over to say hello, entering their flight zone, and sending the steers in alternative directions.
Eventually, Andrew called to request a leash and a reel of fence line, which, once delivered, changed the game substantially. Through the trees, I caught glimpses of black hides, moving. Finally the cows turned the corner and began grazing the lane in front of me. Collectively, we held our breath, waiting to see if they would make the turn. Then one by one they ambled back into their pasture. We quickly closed the gate.
Since that morning the cows have been behaving themselves. They’ve got an abundance of grass, water, and shade, so really, they’ve no need to go on walkabout. Or perhaps, having seen all that there is to see on our piece of ground, they’ve decided that they like it here, and will stay.