By Austin Snedden
I have always figured the best way to learn about cattle conformation and structure was to follow a big group for miles, and just watch. Growing up on a ranch in southwest Kern County where it takes 35 acres to run a cow for a year, I got to spend lots of time following cows with nothing to do but to study them. I have noticed that people who only move cows a couple hundred yards have a different view of animal soundness than those of us who move cattle a couple miles or more. I am no expert, but I think that you will learn more about bovine locomotion by following a slow cow a couple miles on a 100 degree day than you will by any judging team experience. I have seen stock show judges give a high placement and complimentary comments to cattle that would have to pack a lunch to make a trip to a water trough in big country because of the lack of locomotion in their stride. The opportunity I have been given by being able to follow cattle around my whole life not only taught me a lot about what I like to see in cattle structure, but also it allowed me to philosophize about all classes of cattle and how they compare to humans.
I am not going to make direct cattle comparisons to any particular humans; any correlations you make to humans in reading this are your own responsibility, and any damage that may come to you if you choose to share your analysis with said humans is on your shoulders. There are essentially 4 major classes of cattle: cows, bulls, calves, and yearlings. Not unlike ancient cultures, cattle develop a caste system where every group has its rank and is treated equivalently by the other classes. At the top of the cattle caste is the mother cow. Although most cattle make most of their decisions based on appetite and where the next meal is, a good mother cow is motivated by strong maternal instincts and therefore the sense of responsibility take her to the top of the pyramid. Bulls are larger and stronger, but a mother cow’s persistence and duty to her calf will generally dictate where a bull will be. There are certain priorities that determine a mother cow’s decision making. They include the following questions: Where’s my calf? Where’s the best grass? Where are the bulls? Where is that other cow I don’t like? Just in that order.
As with some other species, the bull’s behavior and position is often dictated by whatever the females of the species are doing at that given time. Bulls have a definite caste system amongst themselves that is established very rapidly, and rivals will choose separate territory. A bull’s decision criteria is based on: Where’s the cows? Where’s my rival? Where’s the feed? Bulls are generally no match for the will of cow because of their ability to be distracted by a different cow or a bull they haven’t fought in a while.
The calf is the third ranking member of the bovine caste system. While the smallest and weakest, they are looked after by the most persistent member of the species. As with some other species, sometimes the most aloof calves have the best mothers. The full belly and protection provided by their mother will often make a calf unaware of reality. A calf’s decisions are based on: Where’s mom/lunch? What else have I not sniffed yet?
That brings us to the lowest caste: the yearling. What I am referring to as “yearling” is any heifer or steer post weaning up to feeder or replacement heifer age. These critters have no compass, no responsibility, and all the curiosity of a calf. Having almost no responsibility, their decision making is based almost entirely on curiosity and herd instinct. The yearling herd instinct usually involves about 200 head going all in one direction based purely on the fact that they are following the rear end of the bovine in front of them. They will follow that rear end in front of them never asking where they are going, always thinking the rear end in front of them has a purpose. Up hills, through fences, down hills, through another fence. The one in the lead may be mistaken for having a sense of purpose, but he is merely just the flightiest one, convinced that all the critters behind him must be moving away from some threat behind, and so therefore he keeps the lead so as not to fall back to where that imaginary threat is. The yearling decision making is based on: follow, follow, feed, follow, follow, rub on a fence.
Don’t be a yearling! Make sure you aren’t just following the rear end in front of you assuming they know where they are going, and don’t assume you are on the right track just because someone behind you is following your rear end. Pull away from the pack, look ahead and look behind to see where you are going and why. It is alright to go with the herd sometimes as long as the herd is headed the right direction for the right reason. It might be too early to use “mother cow” as a term of endearment to your family members, but a good mother cow has some qualities we can all admire.