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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care August 2011

Hi Folks,

What’s in a name? What does a name relay to us? What do we associate with different names? How does a name affect how we interact with whomever or whatever it is – whether it is plant, animal or person? For instance, “deadly nightshade” – is it always “deadly”? Or could deadly nightshade have some interesting characteristics in its growth or preference for soil type that we don’t even think about because we simply see “deadly nightshade” and tremble?

For sure, I have never liked when a cow has no actual name but is only known by an ear tag or neck chain number. This is in part because I can’t remember a cow by its number if my life depended on it. I’m simply not a “numbers guy”. Yet I can remember cows with real names for many years. Ask some farmers around Lancaster County and they will likely agree. The other reason I haven’t like cows being given only a number is that I have thought that it shorts them out of a personality.

Indeed, names for animals can provide the animal with instant character. The potential problem is that when we give a name to an animal (especially if it in some way reflects a behavioral pattern of the animal), we tend to lose sight of the animal as its own individual being. Granted, a warm name like Cuddles will probably make for a cow that everyone instantly likes. Oppositely, a name like Jerk will make for a cow no one likes much nor will people be as likely to gladly help her if she needs it, compared to one named Cuddles. Each cow may have “earned” the name, but then it sticks forever and we sum up the animal in one breath.

When I was taking blood samples every few weeks from a herd a couple months ago, the herdsperson would tell me the name of the cow and then perhaps tell me of some interesting tidbit about the cow. Granted, I definitely like to know the story of the animal in front of me. We veterinarians always like to get as much history as possible, though at times the telling of innocent barn history of a cow can throw us off track!

But what I have come to realize is that while I’ve always enjoyed getting a short story along with a name of the animal, even simply knowing a name can actually “blind” me to connecting with the animal directly on a “being to being” basis. This may be due to pre-conceived notions I may have with whatever name an animal has. For instance, I have found that many female animals named Hazel seem to have odd, quirky temperaments. I’m not sure if this is a case of behavior following a given name or a name following a given behavior pattern, but the name Hazel is kind of old fashioned and perhaps implies an odd, quirky type nature.

Now, is this actually fair to the animal? The cow Hazel I am thinking about is generally known to be kind of witchy and kicky. And, granted, I will always listen to a farmer in regards to a potentially kicky cow. So for a few sessions of taking blood samples, we restrained her very well before I even got near her and I even ended up taking blood from her jugular vein one time because of her thrashing to get free of the restraints. However, the last time I got a blood sample from her, I simply approached her quietly. In my usual way of using the backs of my fingers to touch the tail to alert the cow of my presence, she momentarily clamped down her tail and then relaxed. After that, with calm and peaceful intent, I gently lifted her tail and drew the blood sample. No problems whatsoever.

Another cow, with the cute name of Babette, was nothing but trouble, even though the herdsperson told me glowing stories of her before hand. I guess a nice story with a friendly name like Babette calmed me into a false sense of security.

I then mentioned to the person that knowing the name of the cow isn’t as important as knowing the cow herself as an individual being. That large creature is a conscious, highly aware being that has a private life separate of the temporary interaction with people at milking time. She thinks and perceives the world in ways that only cows do. And she knows every cow there quite well, in “cow-ways” which we will never truly know – and yet she knows not one of their names.
Once we let go of names we can start to understand animals as they truly are, rather than how we project our thoughts upon them. Only then can we truly connect ourselves with them – and they to us. This is best done by gazing into their eye for a few moments and catching their gaze returned to us. With cows this can be deeply penetrating, giving one a sense of “bovinity” and their wild ancestors - the bison and buffalo. It is then that a complete realization of their individuality can be experienced: a clear awareness of their individual presence in our midst. It is then that we can understand that the world will be experienced by them in quite a different, unique way than we do. The outcome of such awareness is a true respect for diversity, especially biodiversity for life in our midst on the farm. Whether it is a bird looking to for a place to land or a plant rooted and drawing up the earth’s minerals to grow, each life form adds to Life.

What would a cow’s most complete experience of life, if we weren’t involved? What is the highest “cow-ness” a cow can achieve? In the case of ruminants, it would be grazing forages and forbs. For an individual cow, regardless of what we may name her, it would to be blended in with her herd mates, not drawing attention to herself, yet knowing each and every subtle movement of her herd mates in ways we simply will never truly understand.  

After bringing the cows into fresh pasture when afternoon milkings were done, I remember well sitting on the ground and simply being there: listening to the cows rip at the grass to eat it, then move along and rip at more grass. Combining this with a colorful sunset and crickets chirping, lightening bugs blinking and cicadas resounding, a sense of knowing what a cow experiences in her own element emerges – Bovinity! This is a deeply calming experience, allowing one to immerse and be one with other living beings - they going about their life as if you weren’t even there. This allows you to see these wonderful animals for the beautiful, peaceful beings that they are, both individually and as a group. They don’t mind you’re there, after all they know you quite well – and guess what, they don’t know even know your name. Removing filters, like names, allows us to connect directly with life around us at a heart felt level. Try it, even if just occasionally. It is a very revealing yet humbling experience.

I’m pretty sure there is some sort of innate bond between humans and cows, with cows surrendering some of their “cow-ness” while people hopefully surrender some of their pre-conceived notions and mindfully blend themselves into the herd, to become clear and aware of their cows’ bovinity. Indeed this is the case for any truly dedicated cow person. And as we will continue to name and number cows – just remember to occasionally look beyond the name or number for the individual that is there.

“The real journey of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes…” 
Marcel Proust

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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