How To Train Your Cow

When people come to WonderTree, they often ask Hunter or I if we’ve been farmers our whole lives.

Hunter will share his agricultural upbringing with you and all the ways that raising animals were an integral part of his youth in Texas.

I, on the other hand, grew up a generation away from farming, in north central Indiana. My grandparents were farmers but when they realized that farming on their scale was no longer sustainable, they shifted to the professions afforded to them by the manufacturing industry. 

My parents would often recall childhood stories from fields and pastures. When they were children, their lives were rich with agricultural life experiences. They would share memories of that time and I remember witnessing an excitement and wholesomeness in their eyes.

However, when their stories ended, I could sense an emptiness. It was almost as if they realized a major part of them was cut out when farming was no longer a part of their lives. I’d compare it to grief or sadness.

I can still see the expression on my mother’s face as she would share a story of one of her show horses. She would light up — but at the end of her tale, the light would slowly dissipate into a void.

Growing up a generation away from farming means I understand it to be an integral part of my family, but in my time, it’s only in handed down stories. 

My parents kept close relationships with childhood friends that remained in agriculture. We would often visit for a weekend and throughout the entire time, laughter fueled by childhood farming stories would fill the air.

I do have a rather embarrassing farm story and it’s quite remarkable considering what I do everyday here at WonderTree.

When I was 6, we were being escorted around a beautiful century old barn by my mother’s best childhood friend. I can recall the remarkable engineering in the old wooden structure. Its rafters were huge and the roof and hayloft gave it a cathedral feeling.

Barns being barns have a certain amount of tolerable dinginess to them. Decades of collected cobwebs are woven one over another making them dense and nearly solid. Floors are firm, but covered heavily in straw. You could feel each step supported by hand-hewn wood or gravel, but when the barn is used for raising young animals, you can expect a “squishy” step every once in a while. 

To a kid from the near-suburbs, whose father’s garage was the meticulous reflection of an engineer, this was unacceptable to my senses and to say that I was a bit intimidated by the animals is an understatement. I was mortified by them.

In particular, there was a lone bottle calf — a very young calf that gets its main source of nutrition from bottle feeding, not an udder. Bottle calves are notorious eaters. Their tongues are voracious and if you get anywhere near them, they may just mistake any of your appendages for an udder. 

I could just see that this calf was ready for feeding time. Being about the same height, we locked eyes through the gate. I was frozen. My dad must have mistaken my silence and steady gaze for curiosity, because he asked, “Do you want to go in and see him buddy?”

With all of my senses on overload and processing the direct threat this empty stomach bottle calf posed — I wanted nothing to do with this experience, but I managed to rationalize that it couldn’t be as bad as I thought. I guess I had worked out in my head that my parents had done this all the time when they were my age and they hadn’t died working calves — “So how bad could it be?”

I shook my head with an unsure “yes” and prepared to be lowered into the stall.

My satisfaction with my decision lasted every bit of 2 seconds — as soon as my feet hit the ground, the bottle calf made a direct beeline for my fingers. In an instant, I was hysterical for fear that this vicious animal was going to bite my hand off. I can still remember that tongue and the string of slobber from his mouth all the way up my arm. 

Quite the contrast to how my life has turned out since coming to WonderTree.

Four weeks ago, Hunter and I decided that our breeding stock needed to be moved from their pasture to the winter pasture with the rest of the herd. 

Our breeders consisted of one bull, named Alfredo, five cows and all of their offspring — approximately eight calves of various ages.

Breeders don’t need us for anything. They don’t need us to feed them — they are on lush year-long pastures. They don’t need us for water — a beautiful fresh creek runs through their field. They don’t need us to provide shelter — they have ample timber to find a bed.

They live and procreate without ever seeing a human.

First things first — Alfredo had to go to a new pasture. With bulls this is the typical rhythm of life for a successful breeder. They give life at one farm and then are sent to give life elsewhere.

Bulls know when they see the cattle trailer pull up,  they will be taking a trip to a new farm with new cows, ready to make new life. Contrary to popular belief, this fifteen hundred pound animal was pretty docile. Hunter and I hypothesize about his internal monologue and excitement for moving onto another farm. 

Loading him was no problem. We simply singled him out in the pasture and walked behind him, gently pushing on his hind quarters to point him in the right direction. The task took us less than 30 minutes.

The next day — cows. These are mothers and protective in every sense of the word. They set the example for their calves by being skeptical and weary of anything that may pose a threat to themselves or their young. I’ve learned that a cow that has just calved is the closest thing we’ll ever see on our farm to the Hollywood version of the Running of the Bulls. 

They will run — kick — square themselves up to you like a linebacker — swipe at you with their powerful head.

Again, Hunter and I jokingly remark about their confusion when the “Two-Legged Cows” (aka humans) come every month or so and chase them around the fields. To them I bet we are the equivalent of visitors from another planet and the cattle trailer is our UFO sent to carry them off to a distant galaxy.

The motto when we corral the mothers and calves — take what you can get.

Some are compliant and willing. Being herd animals, if the mothers come the calves follow and in this case, we had three cows and three calves comply without much fuss.

That left two cows and five calves…and they were by no means ready to take any of our suggestions to get into the trailer. To say the calves were “flighty” would be a drastic understatement and the mothers were in no mood to be hassled. 

The closest we came to loading one of the cows, ended with about 800 pounds of tube steel being flung into the air in a daring escape. Hunter and I simply watched in awe as our portable corral system was dismantled with a single flip of her head.

Thankfully we have a bank of Sages to lean into and learn from.

Their concerted advice…“It’s better to pull than push.”

That means, it is a lot less stressful and safer, for all parties concerned, for them to want to be around you and follow you into the trailer.

That has become my mission.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been cultivating relationships with cattle — and to say that I’ve loved every minute of it would not give it justice — it is by far the best part of my workday.

When I started, I chased them trying to force my will upon them which resulted in their flight response and me getting a good workout. In the cattle community there is a saying that goes, “I’m sorry for what I said when we were moving cows.” It is the farmer’s version of Live. Laugh. Love. or Bless this Mess.

Full disclosure — I used the full gambit of four-letter words trying to chase these things down.

This was not a productive effort. So I stopped and took a moment to realign my mindset. I recalled my previous efforts that ended with positive outcomes. 

The consistent theme of those endeavors — you can’t force nature to do your will. It’s amazing what is revealed to us when we stop trying to do things in our timeline and start learning to be and remain patient for perfect timing. 

In 30 minutes of sitting in the middle of a field, the answer came to me. Once the cattle noticed I stopped trying to “push” them, they revealed their natural curiosity and way of interpreting and relating to the world. In that half-an-hour, they showed me what it was going to take to earn their trust.

Consistency. Calm. Communication.

The calves followed the cows because they were dependable. The calves calmed when the cows calmed. The cow’s temperament communicated to the calves the appropriate response. 

In 10 days, we’ve come a long way.

I show up everyday to the pasture during the early afternoon. I wear the same sock cap and brown coat. I bring them sweet, wet haylage. Then I call, “Hey Cows!” as I spread the offering into the corral and stand or sit as close as they will allow me without a flight response.

I move slow; being very deliberate with any move I make. Each day, I get to witness something new and grow closer to these beautiful animals. I can, without a doubt, say that I am pulling these cows.

Yesterday was a big day.

They let me “eat” with them. After I spread their forage, I stood directly in the middle of the corral. 

First the cows came — then the eldest calf — followed by the two curious calves — and finally, the two babies. Then a miracle; the mommas followed me into the trailer — with their eldest calf in tow.

And that is where we stand. We take small, positive steps each day. We don’t try to impose our own will into the equation and we are thankful for what the other affords us. It’s a compromise where time cannot be a factor anywhere in the relationship.

I think we can learn a lot from being with cows.


Chris Jackson
January 2021

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