Over the past few years, my father has stopped the traditional method of growing beef cattle, where the farmer has cows and a bull, nature takes its course, and the cows have calves, which the farmer sells when they are old enough, and the next year the cycle repeats. Now, he buys calves each fall, fattens them over the winter and spring, and sells them in the late spring or early summer, so that he has some time with no responsibilities for cattle.
On our drive to visit my parents this past weekend, early in the morning, we passed by farms, and my girls and I noticed that the cows all faced the same direction. In one lovely field, the frost sparkled on the grass in the morning sun and the forty black cattle all faced the same direction like soldiers on parade.
Cattle are herd animals, and in a group of mixed ages, one cow asserts herself as the “lead cow.” She decides which way they will stand in a field, when they should go to the creek to drink water, and when they should move to a new pasture. In my father’s fields, he has several areas of smaller pastures, and the cows rotate among them based on their daily schedule. The bull is not really in charge, although he might discipline the cows if necessary. Calves follow their mothers.
My father now has a group of calves with no adult supervision, and they must figure out how to be calves with no adult direction. They are disorganized, face all directions in the pasture when grazing, and generally behave in the way a classroom of students does when the teacher leaves. They identify my father as the source of food, and run to him when he enters the yard. As they mature, they’ll figure out who is in charge, but my mother says they never seem as organized as the cows in a traditional system.
Cattle require extensive work; my father is always busy mending fences, baling hay, feeding them supplements, or working on machinery. He mentioned that chickens give you more output for your input than nearly any other animal. His parents had chickens that free-ranged and destroyed my grandmother’s flowerbeds until sometime in the 1960s when industrial chicken farming made it cheaper for them to buy “them old embalmed chickens,” as my grandfather called them, at the grocery store than to keep their own. I do wonder why they preferred to eat something they referred to as “embalmed,” than a fresh chicken, but my grandmother was glad the chickens no longer dug in her flowerbeds, and I am sure they were pleased to have some relief from their farm chores.
I told my father I’d heard that rabbits produce more meat for the amount of work and feed you give them than any other animal. I have never eaten rabbit, and I am afraid they’d become too cute to eat. He said he missed having a good fresh wild rabbit, something he ate as a youth, and that the taste of rabbits grown in captivity didn’t compare to wild rabbit. He seemed wistful about the taste of wild rabbit.
I asked him why he didn’t shoot a rabbit to eat now, and he said that when he got married my mother informed him that she was not going to cook any “cute little bunnies,” and, apparently, didn’t want him to either. I can imagine my sister’s and my trauma if he’d brought home a bunny for dinner. I guess it’s all in what you grow up with, though, because Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the “Little House” books, and many other rural children grew up hoping father would bring home a rabbit for dinner.