Politics of the Herd

In the days after I put down Midnight I gave the herd some space, checking on them from a distance as they grazed on the late Summer pasture. I sold her bull calf to a farmer over on ragged mountain where it would get a chance to bring in some new blood and not be left as a reminder of our loss. I have written about the dynamics of cattle herds before so I won’t go into excruciating detail again. Theirs is a matriarchal system and one cow dominates the others, known as the boss. Her immediate circle are almost always her offspring followed by the herd mates from her generation. She leads them to pasture when let out of confinement, she chooses direction during the course of the day and she leads them back to the loafing shed to ruminate at the end of the day. None of it is done with force, but for whatever reason the rest of the herd follow along with her cues and when something special comes up — when I ride out to the field to bring them a treat or when I fill the totes with water, she is always front and center until she gets her fill, the loyal lieutenants on either flank while the rest of the cows wait patiently for their turn. I assumed that her eldest offspring would simply take charge in her absence and the herd would continue on as before with the only change being the absence of the Black Baldy. Over the days that followed I noticed that rather than graze in a straight line as they had done previously, like a living mower across the pastures, the animals had spread apart and were feeding at a distance from each other, occasionally in groups of twos, but clearly not a part of a unified herd as they had been only days before. I also noticed that when I filled the water trough or drove out to bring them corn husks in the Gator that two of the cows had created their own sub herds and were very physical with each other in establishing dominance.

We bought our first four head of cattle not long after we bought the farm. One was a Simmental, two were polled White Faced Herefords and the last was a Black Baldy, a cross between a Hereford and an Angus. They were all bred at the time of the sale and the following spring we had four additional calves effectively doubling the size of our herd. Each year we kept the heifer calves to help build the herd and we slaughtered the previous year’s steers to keep our family fed. In this way we slowly built a small cow/calf operation that produced between five and seven calves each year and allowed us to sell a couple of bull calves as livestock while keeping our freezers filled with vacuum sealed bags of ground beef, roasts and deep purple rib-eyes, NY strips and sirloins for the grill. As time went on we began to breed for the qualities we preferred in our cows; docility, large frame, ease in calving, natural mothering traits and white mane down the back of their sienna hide. This was what is known as a landrace herd, uniquely suited to the climate, pasture and cultural environment of our farm. We only brought in a bull that fit our criteria and only from local farms that bred their own White Face Herefords. Over the years the Simmental traits were bred out leaving a unique freckle pattern on the muzzles of the new calves and larger bags but little else. By the fifth generation the only animal left from the original four, Midnight survived the annual cull and the rest of the animals all bore a very uniform and unique type that was suited to us and our ground. With Midnight out of the picture every animal we had was now a product of our farm having been bred and born here and having spent its entire life in a single place. they were as rooted to this land as we were.

It is commonly accepted in modern science that the domestication of animals took place over a period of ten thousand years, more or less. It likely began with wolves which became the modern day dog species, but it was closely followed by other species, primarily those used for sustenance; cattle, hogs, poultry, goats and sheep. Domestication likely followed the process of taming, closely related, but distinctly different processes and both of these were the result of shadowing, where tribes of humans followed herds of prey in order to harvest them for their meat and skins. It is also commonly assumed that the domestication process which allowed for the genetic refinement of a species based on specific traits was the result of deliberate human action, that it was a one way operation whereby humans controlled the slow and steady alteration of a wild species into one that could be more easily led and controlled, but this ignores a fundamental reality of human behavior. We change too. Domestication is a two way street and as our animal counterparts began to turn into something different than the original form, so too did we. Our days of ceaseless movement, of hunting and gathering at random became less ubiquitous and soon we became rooted to place, forced to spend time where it benefited the livestock as much as the livestock rewarded us. It served to improve the lines of men and women who could adapt to working with animals as counterparts, who understood them less as prey in the moment and more as a stock in the future. It taught us new skill sets like the building of semi permanent dwellings, and confinements as well as new tools and methods for providing for the lives and health of more than our own offspring and family members. In effect the animals we chose to domesticate helped to domesticate us as well. We learned to stay put, to think further in the future than we had ever needed to in the past and to work with one another in a world that demanded far more peaceful interactions than violent ends for success.

The herd began to coalesce around two challengers for dominance, the first offspring of the original Simmental and the first offspring of Midnight. Both were from the same breeding cycle, both had three offspring of their own and both were roughly the same size, twelve hundred pounds each. They had their own cliques and they were both clearly interested in the position for reasons I could not begin to fathom. There was a sharp increase in physicality in every close encounter, head butting that Midnight had always kept to a minimum with just a look was now common behavior at the water trough. The youngest heifers attached themselves to the bull, following him everywhere and trying to build an attachment to the dominant male in the herd, something I had never seen before. Usually the bull is an outsider that tags along with the herd and serves only to protect it from predators and to breed them when their are in season, but otherwise ignored by the cows and the heifers. There were the cows that attempted to stay out of the fray and simply hung back waiting for a resolution to the struggle that was ongoing but they too played a role by simply following whatever the winds of change brought to the herd. Those who failed to participate were still a part of the herd, but their role was near the bottom either way so not much changed regardless of what they did.

The ground we live on is made up of glacial till, a mix of sands and gravel that drains well but which provides for a constant supply of water worn cobbles and fractured granite that come up from the ground wherever there is a disturbance on the surface. We take these rocks and lay them along the fences to help solidify the posts and to provide an extra discouragement for the snouts of the hogs that always work at the bottom of the rails for a chance to escape. Over time they sink back into the loam and disappear from sight. We’ve been working almost a decade at building the soil back with a constant application of carbon; wood chips, manures, shavings, grass clippings, leaves. And to this we put the hogs to work to till it all in, to deepen the soil structure and amend it to the kind of depth that will lock the rocks into the deeper substrate. One animal after another is put to use, not just in feeding us, but in feeding the living soil with their work and altogether every living thing on this piece of ground works together in a symbiotic relationship, constantly manipulating the other into becoming something slightly different, more efficient, interdependent. For the animals it means a higher quality manure and more protein per living pound, for the humans an animal with an ethic of responsibility and industry that has the ability to plan for the future and to keep predators at bay even while it harvests the surplus from the herds and flocks which produce them.

A few nights back my youngest son and I watched a program called “What On Earth?” that featured a series of anomalies discovered by satellite imagery and the possible explanations for their causes. A few are natural and some are inexplicable but most are the kinds of things that anyone could easily figure out if they put their mind to it. One of the featured sites was a series of extremely long stone lines in a desert area in western Asia. The host and his experts postulated a series of possible explanations, even pointing out an ancient knapped stone hand ax that was found along the wall indicating, they supposed, a defensive boundary. They came to the conclusion that the stones were part of an old fortified wall, but why it was made up of so many small rocks rather than readily available larger boulders and how it happened to be located in such a remote and arid area would forever remain a puzzle. I understood it at once as something different — it was the remnants of an ancient fence line, the stones merely the debitage of where the people who had inhabited that area long ago had deposited the stones that came to the surface during their agrarian activities. The climate may have changed, they may have ruined the soils through overuse and it is almost certain that what the area was today, five thousand years ago it may have been verdant and productive. The long row of rocks was never meant as a wall, but rather it was a convenient location to dump rock waste in a place that was at one time fertile and served as either pasturage or a confinement area for early herds. Just like the kind of remains that will one day be found on our farm.

I think that humans consider themselves as distinct and different from all the other living organisms that inhabit this planet, that we are unique among all the species in that the laws of Nature do not apply to us if we find them inconvenient or troublesome. We have the ability to think so far outside the box that we come up with ideologies and beliefs that are rooted in nothing but fantasy and dreams, disconnected from the physical world which we inhabit. We fight wars, spend untold wealth and sacrifice our very survival on ideas so nebulous and unrealistic that it makes the mind reel. On any given day there is almost always some news item or program that postulates about the day we make contact with extraterrestrial life while we completely ignore the myriad of living forms that live among us, the majority of which are invisible to the human eye. Some of these are so fantastic, so alien in their own right and appearance as to shame the creators of Hollywood’s greatest monsters, but they are here and they are common and so we fail to consider communication or study in any way that approximates our fascination with whatever may be out there that we can never know. We also forget that even though we live individual lives we are still part of a larger organism that is our family, our tribe, our race and our species and that these all have their own unique destinies which require our participation even though we seem oblivious to the movements and evolution of this greater living organism. Like the cows jockeying for some kind of supremacy within the herd we too fall into one of any number of camps with our human counterparts, seeking to either fit in with one, or identify ourselves by our resistance and conflict with another. Cattle and hogs and chickens and goats have been carefully selected for any number of attributes over spans of time longer than any living human can imagine and they have become something very different, but so to have we. We use them to feed us we think, but forget that they have taught us to feed them. Domestication suits livestock, but it suits us as well and we should take closer note of the evidence of this process, like the experts who tried to decipher the meaning in the stone lines left across the desert floor and see if maybe we aren’t being manipulated by invisible borders of our own design.

The herd has worked itself out in the last weeks of grazing. The daughter of Midnight prevailed and the bossy behavior has subsided from the daughter of the Simmental. The heifers are back to the cows again and the bull is on his own, living at the edge of the herd to keep an eye out for predators and to await another estrus where his services will be required. Perhaps they sense the shortening of the days and that soon they will be corralled into the Winter sacrifices and that in close quarters it is likely better for all of them to find a form of compromise that allows them to get on with the business of being.

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