The Cows of Winter

In a previous post I mentioned that I don’t think I’m particularly prone to anthropomorphizing the livestock. While I do think they have states that vary, I doubt very much these are similar enough to the commonly understood meanings of the words like “emotion” or “mood” to make them useful. But not ascribing to cows the existential concerns particular to humans does not mean I don’t worry about them. While it’s easy for me to question how much concern for the future they have or if their attachment to the other members of their herd resembles affection, I am confident that they at least experience physical discomfort.

So while I don’t lie awake worrying about whether or not the cows like me - I’m confident of their indifference - when the temperatures are forecast to drop well below zero I can’t help but imagine how I would feel if I was out in it without any blankets. On these nights sleep can be slow to come. But inevitably, when I go outside the next morning, they will all be standing around munching on hay, and I will be reminded again of how different not just their inner lives are, but also that, despite some commonalities, their physical experiences drastically differ from my own.

A cow is a ruminant, which means that the largest of her four stomachs (or, more accurately, the largest of the four chambers that together make up her one stomach) is full of fermenting hay. If you’ve ever dug into a compost pile in the middle of winter only to find it steaming, you can appreciate how much heat fermentation can make. A well fed cow has this reaction continuously occurring within her, which, when coupled with her subcutaneous fat and shaggy winter coat, keep her plenty warm in conditions in which my nose and fingers feel like they’re going to fall off after twenty minutes.

The calves born last spring have access to a barn, but sheet metal walls and an open door don’t do much to keep out the cold. They do fine with this, and the cows, steers, and bull do fine with the natural windbreaks provided by trees along the fenceline. I do fine too, though I wouldn’t without my house and fire and bed and quilts and long underwear.

Garth Brown

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top