Cattle are fascinating creatures. I first learned to appreciate them in college. As a student at Colorado State University, I really got to know cattle in the animal science classroom. My interest was further piqued by Dr. Grandin, an expert animal behaviorist. She taught us how to understand these creatures. Many students in the animal science program were horse crazy girls who looked at cows as 'slow, dumpy non-horses'. The professors taught us much more about these animals. They taught the academic reasons why cattle are so unique and how they view the world. They are slower, but that means they must decide if they will flee, or stand and fight. A horse will always choose to flee because they are swift enough to escape most predators. A cow has a sense of their own size and strength and will use it if they cannot outrun their foe. In contrast, horses travelling in a herd will give each other space and their agility allows them to change course and avoid obstacles. Cattle in a herd use a different technique. They go should to shoulder with the rest of the herd, to keep the predators on the outside. They run together to keep themselves safe. They don't allow anything to get between them and use their hooves to stomp anything that tries. This means they must go over any obstacles in their way. This is why cattle stampedes are so dangerous. With no space in between them, and constant shoving all around, a single cow cannot avoid running over a person, or animal in their way.
My education was furthered while working with the university's herd. I learned about the incredible maternal instinct of cows. I joked about being a cow midwife because of how much experience I got during calving season. Most calves were born in the pasture, but many needed help. I was even with several as they mourned the loss of their calf. They stood over the lifeless little body of their newborn until they realized the baby would not get up. This took a day or so, typically. We would hear their mournful cries from the bunkhouse. Then, they would rejoin their herd. In contrast, I watched, horrified, as an old mama cow dealt with a silent, unmoving, newborn calf. She pushed her nose underneath the calf and flung him up in the air. I watched her do it twice in a row and wondered if I should intervene. Her still wet calf hit the crusty snow hard both times. After the second hit, he bellowed for all he was worth, and she started licking him. I noticed that the mama cow's action's had cleared her newborn's lungs. One especially cold night, I clutched a heifer's half frozen newborn calf in the back of a pick-up truck as she tried to run us down. We warmed up her baby in the deep sink and under lamps while she bellowed from a stall in the barn. When the baby was warm and hungry, we gave him back to her.
I also learned as a vet tech for a large animal vet in northern Colorado. Our clients had range cattle. Whether they were commercial cattle, registered Angus, or crossbred Black Baldies, they all experienced life on the range without human contact except for maybe one or two bad days a year, or if something went very wrong. So, when we showed up, they were in pain, away from their herd, stressed, and ready to fight. I wrangled plenty of ornery cattle with snotty noses, stuck calves, or bad injuries. I ran them into chutes, torqued heads over, and applied nose rings. I was stepped on, pushed over, nose slimed, bellowed at, and head butted. There was one notable exception. One client raised Dexter Cattle. They came when he called them into the corral. They quieted down in the chute when he spoke to them. They actually seemed to like their owner. After all the range cattle I had experienced, I loved the idea of raising cattle that liked me back. This is why, after getting my feet wet with some commercial cattle, I bought three registered Dexter heifers, back in 2005, and started my own little herd. Over the years, I've sold some great little heifers, that were halter broken and gentle, to families as a family milk cow. I still get occasional emails from people showing me a new calf. It's lovely to know that people have enjoyed their little Dexters as much as I have. I've enjoyed taming our cattle and teaching them new things. We have a cow that is a perfect Nativity cow at our son's school every year. She is passing the torch to a younger cow now. We have cows we can take for walks and feed treats to. I still want to teach a cow to be a draft animal. That seems like the ultimate training level for a cow.
It has been a wonderful 14 years of trying hard to improve the breed. I tried to select bulls carefully so that I would correct poor traits, such as poor udder conformation, while retaining good ones, such as temperament. It's hard to stop something that I have put so much time and energy into, but our new farm just isn't big enough to support a bull and cows calving yearly. The market is saturated with Dexters in my area, so it's not a bad time to pull out. I never got tired of newborn calves. or watching the animals interact in the pasture. I loved having a bull out with the herd in a family group. With just a few cows now, it seems like their isn't the dynamic herd structure there used to be. I will miss seeing little calves climbing all over the bull while he is lying quietly in the shade chewing his cud. I will miss watching the bull generously share his grain with his offspring. I'll miss the bull greeting the newborns as soon as they were up, as if welcoming them to the herd. I'll miss the quiet foghorn sound a cow makes to her newborn calf. I'll miss everything about the family life of a herd of cattle. Now, it will just be a couple of cows and an occasional steer waiting for the freezer. Our last little calf is Tillie. She is a darker dun color than her mama, but not as dark as her sire, who is chocolate colored. She will be fun to raise, especially knowing she is one of the last calves. Maybe she will be the draft cow.