Summer of the Cow

I hate this time of year. You can hardly get around because all the backroads get clogged up with news vans parked on the roadside. Yep, every summer the media around here goes bonkers. You can more or less set your calendar by it: Around July 4th, you’ll see the first helicopters circling over pastures, getting fresh footage of cows loafing for the nightly news. Sometimes they’ll film a whole herd grazing a hillside, which is sure to spike ratings for the lead story, “Farmer Gored by Killer Bull: Second Attack in Two Weeks.” Sometimes they’ll even get shots of cows stampeding toward the feed bunk, in a so-called “feeding frenzy.” And when they’re really desperate, they’ll get a closeup of a steaming cow patty, as evidence that cows have been recently grazing the area. 

Of course, the only thing this media-hype does is put a damper on our tourist season. In fact, last year I didn’t see a single tourist swimming in any local farm ponds, likely for fear of cows grazing the shores nearby. To try to re-attract visitors, Ed Johnson built a hydraulic Loch Ness Monster for his farm pond that surfaces every three hours and snorts steam, but even that gimmick hasn’t been able to drive tourists back into his pond water.

And that’s a real shame. It’s as if people don’t realize that cows are mostly harmless bovines. On average, they only kill twenty people in the United States per year, which is merely eight times higher than the number of people who die each year from shark attacks worldwide–and when was the last time you saw a news story on shark attacks? It’s a double standard if you ask me.

How to Bid on Livestock like a Pro

The sale barn, where livestock is bought, sold, and sometimes bartered in the parking lot,  is your local hub for agricultural activity. It’s a good place to connect with other farmers—just  don’t yawn or scratch your head because you might accidentally buy a cow. Such faux pas are  common among newcomers to a stockyard. 

As a child, perhaps you longed to be a professional sale-barn bidder. Or perhaps not. But  in rural culture, it’s nearly as common a dream job as a cowboy, county agent, or veterinarian.  Even full-grown adults, while listening to an auctioneer jabber endlessly, have been known to  daydream about life as a high-profile livestock trader. Unfortunately, daydreaming is a sure sign  you’re an amateur buyer. Professional buyers sit stoic in the crowd, impervious to the hypnotizing  effect of an auctioneer’s voice, bidding with nearly imperceptible winks, head nods, and twitches.  Rumor has it, the best sale-barn buyers can blink Morse code with their eyes. 

Professional buyers are rock stars of rurality. After thundering into the parking lot with a  livestock trailer capable of hauling a small herd of elephants, a professional moseys over to inspect  the bovines while awestruck onlookers ask for autographs on bidding cards and advice on buying.  The professional obliges, scribbling a pithy line like, “Buy low. Sell high—High Bid Hal.” Hal  then enters the arena fashionably late and sits proudly in his reserved seat in direct line of sight of  the auctioneer. Moments later, a murmur ripples through the crowd when Hal buys his first of  many cows. 

Of course, we all can’t be as suave as High Bid Hal, but I’ve studied his behavior and  gleaned some helpful tips on how to resemble a professional sale-barn bidder and strike fear in  your bovine buying competition. Follow these tips, and you’ll resemble a competent procurer of  livestock in no time. 

Do your homework

Don’t arrive at the sale barn and start buying willy-nilly. Although  professionals do this, buying willy-nilly is considered an advanced technique that takes many years  to master. Instead, spend time at your stockyard studying the process. Also, learn the markings.  Often cows will be marked with spray paint or a sticker. Different colors represent different things.  For instance, a red dot might mean “steer” or a yellow dot might mean “confirmed pregnant.”  Thus, a red and yellow dot together would mean a confirmed pregnant steer, in which case you  should buy that miraculous animal. 

Show No Emotion

Don’t smile at the sale barn. Don’t make eye contact with humans.  Such behavior is considered a sign of weakness. It’s best not to attempt jokes either, unless you’re  the auctioneer who will likely impersonate a stand-up comic before the sale starts. Whatever you  do, don’t laugh at the auctioneer’s jokes. The auctioneer is merely trying to loosen up the crowd  to encourage bidding. But if you’ve done your homework, you’ve heard these jokes before.  Auctioneers rarely come up with new material. 

Walk the Catwalk

Strolling the catwalk is an essential job function for supermodels and sale-barn bidders alike. At a stockyard, the catwalk is  the elevated walkway that allows you to view animals in the pens below. If you’re a sale-barn  novice, practice your walk at home, especially if you’re afraid of heights. Many professional sale barn bidders prefer a mosey, though you can try a saunter or amble. Advanced sale-barn stars will  often have a trademark “hitch in their gitty-up” that sets their walk apart from amateurs (If you’re  a British farmer, please visit the Ministry of Silly Walks to search for trademarked hitches. America has no such regulatory body, so trademarked walks here mean nothing. If you don’t like  Monty Python, please disregard the previous joke). 

Don’t fall

Have your bidding card ready:

Nothing says amateur like fumbling to find your bidding  card, which contains your all-important bidder identification number. Livestock sales are fast  paced. For instance, a typical cattle sale might go as follows: 

“A good steer, who’ll give me a dollar fifty—fifty cents, fifty cents, fifty cents? Alright,  dollar forty, looking for forty, looking for forty, looking for forty to start. That’s a good  steer now. Someone start it. thirty-five cents, thirty-five, thirty-five, thirty-five, looking for  thirty-five cents. THIRTY-FIVE—top right corner! Now forty, looking for forty, huhmana  huhmana forty, huhmana huhmana forty. FORTY over here! Now forty-five, forty-five,  forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, looking for forty-five, looking for forty-five,  looking for forty-five. Now looking for forty-two. Down low, FORTY-TWO! Now forty three, a dollar forty-three, dollar forty-three, dollar forty-three. That’s a good steer, good  steer, good steer. Forty-three, looking for forty-three, huhmana huhmana huhmana forty three. FORTY-THREE—top right! Now forty-four, forty-four, forty-four, forty-four,  forty-four, forty-four, huhmana huhmana forty-four looking for forty-four. Going once,  going twice, sold FORTY-THREE! Top right corner!” 

Though seemingly impossible, all this verbiage is uttered and the steer is sold in five seconds total.  And the process is repeated instantaneously with another cow—if, that is, the previous buyer had  his or her bidding card ready. If not, the whole auction comes to a jarring halt and people glare.  Whatever you do, don’t get flustered and flash your card upside down—you’ll be laughed out of  the arena. Though speed is important, it’s better to draw slow and shoot for accuracy than fall  victim to vicious sale barn humor. 

Having read these tips, you’ll soon achieve stockyard stardom. If in doubt, just remember:  buy low, sell high. It’s that simple.

The Three Truths of Raising Livestock

If you walk far on our farm during winter, you’ll likely come up missing footwear, especially if you try to traverse the Bog of Despair, which is centered around the hay ring. It contains a few old-growth rubber boots that are as firmly rooted in the muck as swamp gums in the Bayou. The poor soles are a grim reminder of what happens when bipeds with loosely-fitting rubber boots on their trotters attempt such a superfluous task as removing twine from a hay roll. 

A lot of farmers don’t bother cutting and removing the twine, but if anybody was going to lose a cow because twine got knotted up in the digestive tract, it would probably be me. I once lost a cow to a plastic feedsack. “Probably just a little case of pneumonia,” the vet said, having stopped by since the cow was off its feed and acting puny, “likely this shot will get her perked back up and feeling better by tomorrow.” By tomorrow, the cow was as perky as a three-toed sloth, and by the next day it was as perky as a dead three-toed sloth. Figures, most farmers get to tell stories of losing cows to cunning predators like coyotes or mountain lions or chupacabras, but I lose a cow to a plastic bag.   

I know it was a plastic feed sack because after we dragged the carcass off and let nature take its course, my wife’s poppaw returned to examine the remains. In the ribs, he found a feedsack that had been balled up and compacted so tightly it could have been an effective projectile in a small cannon. 

In my opinion, losing animals is the worst part of farming, especially when I easily could have prevented that loss by throwing the empty feedsack away instead of saving it for who knows why. After that, I was admittedly feeling pretty glum. In consolation, my wife’s poppaw told me there are two truths to raising livestock: “Animals are going to get out, and animals are going to die; a person who ain’t prepared to deal with those two facts don’t need to be raising livestock.”

He was right of course, but I’d also like to add a third truth: a farm is going to get muddy in winter, and a person who ain’t prepared to lose a boot, best walk barefoot. 

Good Fences Make Poor Farmers

My neighbor Nell is a real agricultural ignoramus, pardon my French. A thousand times, I’ve told her cows are herbivores, and as such, my cows eat her herbs, particularly her basil and oregano. It’s just simple biology. Hence, there was no need for Nell to buy a shotgun and take shooting lessons, all just to pepper my cows with bird shot. Really, all she had to do was stop planting culinary herbs and start planting inedible weeds. A garden of pigweed, curly doc, and buttercups would suffice. Cows hate those pasture weeds; in fact, mine walk right past them on the way to Nell’s garden. 

Unfortunately, Nell always finds the hardest way possible to solve a simple problem. Concerning my cows crossing her property line, she now believes a good fence is the solution, which is exactly what someone who hasn’t studied agriculture would think. A good fence has never solved anything. For instance, the Chinese built an impediment fifty-foot high and 13,000 miles long, made of stone no less and with archers atop, and cows still got out. Cows will find a way.

The problem is Nell has no mind for agriculture, no mind for anything but sappy poems and iambic pentameter. A former English teacher, she is particularly fond of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”—you know the one where the old farmer says, “good fences make good neighbors.” Like most English teachers, she ignores facts–and the fact is Frost was a pitiful farmer whose agricultural advice should be altogether disregarded. He was such a bad farmer he quit and made more money writing poetry—rhyming poetry!

Thus, I had to set Nell straight, lest she make a big mistake. I told her listening to Frost for farming advice was like listening to Emily Dickinson for travel recommendations. I told her a good fence is a lot of work, even for a small garden like hers, but she could borrow my post hole diggers if she’d like.

“My garden, lordy no,” she replied. “I meant your pasture. Your fence is falling to pieces. Isn’t it the farmer’s responsibility to maintain fences to keep good neighborly relations?”

She delivered this with a straight face, an attempt at deadpan humor, which she really sold by pointing the shotgun at me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for second-amendment rights, but I believe there should be restrictions on gun ownership for people who like poetry. You never know when they may have a “spontaneous overflow of emotion,” as Wordsworth put it, and blast somebody. 

“Now, Nell,” I said. “That’s funny—though you really shouldn’t have taken the safety off. In fact, for a split second, I thought you were serious. But then I remembered everybody knows good fences make poor farmers.”

“How so?” she asked. 

“First, if farmers had good fences, they wouldn’t gain experience chasing livestock, which is an essential animal husbandry skill. Second, if farmers spent money building good fences, they’d be so poor they couldn’t buy livestock to go in the fence. Third, farmers have a lot more important stuff to do than mending fences, like chasing livestock.” 

“Powww!”  

Had I not ducked, I likely would have been sprayed by bird shot—but I noticed Nell starting to froth at the mouth as I talked and figured she was about ready to burst with one of those spontaneous overflows. To miss the second barrel, I timed my leap perfectly, springing upward right after she said, “Die, cow farmer!”

Onay Icrochipsmay Inyay Igspay (or No Microchips in Pigs)

It’s hard enough as is for farmers to survive tracking red clay into an old farmhouse. Just think about the carnage that will come when farmers leave red Martian mud on the floors of a newly-built geodesic dome. Thus, by developing a spacecraft, Elon Musk was already putting future farmers in peril.

But Musk couldn’t stop there. Secretly, he’s been putting microchips in pig brains (no joke). Maybe I could understand microchips in the brains of guinea fowl–those poor birds need all the extra intelligence they can get–but pigs, no. Make pigs any smarter, and we’re one step from becoming our own bacon. George Orwell already covered what happens when pigs revolt: we get a communist, porcine state. 

So, I’m not sure why Musk chose to enhance pigs when other farm animals need more brain power. Certainly, it doesn’t take long to realize some farm animals are a little slow. To be fair to farm animals, I suspect the feeling is mutual. My cows have a way of staring at me that makes me feel self-conscious, as if they’re calling me a moron. Likely, it’s just paranoia. I doubt my cows would ever do that, even when they lined up along the fence to watch me accidentally back the tractor through a barn wall. 

my staring cows make me paranoid

Of course, intelligence in farm animals depends partly on socioeconomic conditions. Animals raised on upper-class organic farms have more advantages. That said, genius can arise from lowly uncertified organic farmsteads and even conventional farms where animals eat generic hay. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Anybody who has seen my neighbor’s farm, which is littered with dilapidated farm equipment, knows his cows are technologically disadvantaged. And yet, an artistic savant arose from the rust. 

The bull, a massive Hereford, was an expert in abstract art and even dabbled in sculpting. With a few strokes of his head, he could contort a gate or corral panel into something utterly unrecognizable. Many art critics declared his abstractions the work of genius. Buyers at the sale barn disagreed, declaring his work of the devil, just another example of an artist going undervalued in his own lifetime. 

Anyway, I’m all for publicly-funded animal education. In fact, I wish someone would teach my cows not to devour every bit of plastic or metal they find when they have a whole pasture full of grass. Plus, I’d like it if they quit escaping and eating my neighbor’s expensive Japanese maple. But inserting microchips in pig brains seems a step too far. If Musk keeps at it, we’ll all be speaking Pig Latin soon, so onay icrochipmay inyay igspay!