CowExist II
February 2024, Island Voices

CowExist II

By Marc J. Elzenbeck

With much care, and over months, our foster cow Leslie’s terrible wound began to heal under daily debriding and cleaning. Amazingly, what had been a deep, two-foot-long gash in her left shoulder, imitating for all appearances a hanging flank steak, gradually closed back together and began smoothing out into short-haired Holstein hide, until visiting neighbors and guests couldn’t tell it was ever there. 

This was largely thanks to a devoted volunteer, alias Rhett Butler. Along the way, we learned the benefits of Bag Balm in animal (and presumably also human) healing, and picked up more skills in ruminant ways – the basics of wrangling, watering, and luring.

It would be a stretch to say that Leslie was ever domesticated in any way, but like most beings accustomed to spending 90 percent of their waking hours chewing, she found satisfaction in routine, welcoming and demanding human attention as part of it. Co-evolution may not be the right word for what has happened over a few eons, but should fate ever entrust you with a cow, you’ll soon see how extraordinarily tuned in they are to people. They see all. And they seem to know all, with dog-like psychic powers. 

Likewise, disruption in their routine is cause for concern. Example: When shuffling to my kitchen sink in the morning, thinking about turning on the faucet to start coffee, from 130 yards away, through two dense stands of forest, Leslie could yell, “Where the hell have you been, human? Get your abusive carnivore ass out here and fork over some hay. You’re 8 minutes late!” (That’s a translation, and she was wrong. I was only 7 minutes late. Cows are prone to exaggerate.)  

In any event, there were no more great escapes, no desperate chases. With the exception of the threat of getting stepped on by an inattentive hoof and persistent “Moos” that could shake shingles right off a cedar tree, you might admit to a hint of tranquility. In military terms, at least, we had negotiated a cease-fire.

And, speaking of hay. Such mounds of hay. How much forage the average cow will eat in a day as a percentage of its weight involves a number of factors like crude protein content, total digestible nutrients, and age of feed, all of which are examined with precision at places like the Institute for Advanced Bovine Studies, aka Washington State University. 

In brief, given decent hay quality, a reasonably safe rule of thumb for a pregnant young cow is 2.5% of body weight per day, or in Leslie’s case, somewhere in excess of 75 pounds. Left to her preferences, and with some wastage, Leslie was happiest with a 100-pound bale, ideally with some helpings of molasses-soaked grain (which she got addicted to as a bribe in order to scrub out her painfully open wound).

Do the math, and that currently equates to about $40 a day or $1200 per month in feed costs. Unless you have open rangeland and five acres of tall, natural grass per cow, ranching on Vashon is a hobby and not a serious business. Costs for just one wayward cow are roughly equivalent to owning and operating a nice 40-foot motor home on a cross-country trip, paying off a lovely yacht or sailboat with moorage included, maintaining a used Ferrari with a new Corvette thrown in, stocking a respectable wine cellar for Downtown Abbey, or 2 or 3 good trips to Thriftway.   

While we waited for Leslie/Cowzilla to calve, we also gained new ranch hands in the form of two high-energy city teenagers, John and Denver. They were kind of a package deal. John, our godson from back East, befriended Denver from Tacoma while they were both counselors at Camp Sealth. They started to spend days off at the farm, and between running around, breaking tree limbs, shooting BB guns, and starting fires, they began to do occasional chores. Which included pasture frolics.

It was on one of these missions of chaos that John and Denver, along with our own two younger boys, discovered that Leslie had laid down in a thick patch of nettles under the shade of a big cedar nearest the barn. They raised the alarm, and we piled out from the main house to see, in the thickest part of that patch, a calf standing up first on two, then with some up-nuzzlings from a massive mom head, finally all four legs, splayed out and swaying. 

Fortunately, there was nothing more to do than to stand in witness and marvel at new life. A healthy female calf, seemingly normal in every way compared to her outsized mom, entirely black but for a tiny white star on the middle of her forehead. 

Born in nettles, one of the boys named her Nettie. She was an exemplary calf, and Leslie was a surprisingly good mom. There were a couple of udder complications associated with a bout of gestational diabetes (see “molasses-soaked grain”), but Nettie nursed normally and grew as one would expect, closely resembling a Black Angus with whom she had no direct relation. Months passed in peace. I honestly don’t know how many. But it wasn’t very many.

You see, all that time Leslie had been watching intently. Like the velociraptors in their Jurassic Park enclosure, she had noticed a vulnerability, a particular chain and ring set-up on the gate to the main pasture. To close the gate, you looped the chain onto a peg outside the gate post and closed the ring over to secure it. More importantly, Leslie had also smelled the presence of a bull about a mile-and-a-half away. 

When her mind and body told her she was ready, Leslie reached through the gate and undid the ring with her tongue. It was off to the races, and down the highway again, but this time with young Nettie following. 

February 9, 2024

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