Sunday, January 8, 2012

Thoughts about Bulls


Let’s Talk Bull

You don’t see bulls around much anymore. Artificial insemination is now the method of choice for cattle reproduction.

My mother-in-law grew up on her family’s dairy farm in St. Johnsville, NY living in terror of extremely aggressive bulls. According to her they had rings in their noses from which hung long chains, the idea being that when a bull started to run at you it would step on the chain and come to a screeching halt. However, she remembers one bull that knew how to flip the chain up onto its back so that it could charge freely.

My only other knowledge of bulls comes from my cousin who did research in livestock fertility when she was a graduate student. Every morning it was her job to collect semen  from the bulls that lived in a university laboratory. (Yes they actually lived in a lab. I saw a picture of one of her bulls in a green tiled stall with a stainless steel gate.) My cousin is a very pragmatic person. The collection process was conducted by hand. She liked to say about her work “My bulls really love to see me coming in the morning.” These days she specializes in human fertility and says that in comparison to the bulls’ the human sperm is “just pathetic.”

I had an experience with a real live bull a few days ago. This particular bull was of a breed called Milking Devon http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/cattle/milkingdevon/index.htm. Some friends of ours, Paul and Phyllis, have a grass-fed beef and dairy farm in Sharon Springs NY called Dharma lea farm. They have a Milking Devon bull on their farm. His name is Rex. He weighs about 2,000 pounds, is solid rusty red color and has a big set of horns and a ring in his nose. As with all bulls, he is kept for breeding. We happened to be at Dharma lea one day when Rex was to be loaded onto a trailer for transport to another farm where he was going to earn his keep by impregnating cows with his superior genetics.

When we got there Rex was stanchioned in the dairy barn eating hay. The barn was closed up and empty except for him. All the dairy cows had headed out to pasture. He seemed peaceful enough, munching his hay. Prepared for travel he had the words “No Grain” spray painted on his side in huge green letters. Rex’s owners were not taking any chances. Rex is an extremely valuable animal. He has never eaten grain. According to Rex’s part-owners Joan and Rob, who have partnered with Paul and Phyllis to raise this animal, his organic, all-grass diet is essential to his excellent health and his reproductive strength. According to just about everyone Milking Devon bulls are “good boys” but I had reservations. He was a young male after all, and in any species that can mean trouble. And did I mention he had a ring in his nose?

Anyway the pick up truck with a livestock trailer was backed up to the barn door. A short makeshift chute had been set up for Rex to walk through enroute from the barn into the trailer. While I remained in the barn with Phyllis the others got into position outside in the chute. Phyllis unchained Rex from his stanchion and told him it was time to go. He backed out of his stanchion reluctantly. She danced around his hindquarters and gave him a firm pat on the haunch. “Let’s go Rex” and he began to amble forward. I followed.

We walked in a  parad, Phyllis first, then Rex, then me. As Phyllis exited the building into the chute I realized that I was about to be the only thing standing between Rex and the barn he was in the process of leaving. I know from my own limited experience that when you are trying to move animals that are used to being in a barn to a place that is unknown to them the main thing that they want to do is to go back in the barn. I looked for an exit other than the one Rex was using. After a panicky moment I found the door to the milking parlor. From the parlor another door led outside. This brought me out right next to the chute.

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Inside the chute Paul and Phyllis stood on either side of the door to the trailer, the opening to which Rex was investigating with reservations. Paul held a pitchfork in one hand. Ron had taken the unenviable position of being between Rex and the barn door. And Dieter had decided he should be in the chute with his camera to get a good shot. Rex remained uncertain about the situation.

Paul began to tap Rex on the back with the handle of the pitchfork. Phyllis lamented the fact that no one had thought to put hay in the trailer to lure Rex in. A moment later Rex seemed to decide he did not want to go in the trailer. He swung his big horned head around and looked over his shoulder at Ron who clapped his hands together a couple of times.Paul pressed the prongs of the pitchfork against Rex's haunch. Rex swung his head back around and looked into the trailer once again and then began to turn around in the chute completely in order to go back into the barn. Ron made a move to one side with his arms spread wide like he was going to try and stop him and Paul said “Let him go. Let him go.” Ron stepped away and Rex trotted back into the barn. Once inside Rex ran the length of the barn bellowing. I was glad I had found the milk parlor door.

Paul was laughing. “You know the question ‘What does an 800 pound gorilla do?’? The answer is ‘Anything he wants.’.” Some modifications to the system were made. A nice pile of hay was fluffed in the trailer. Paul traded his pitchfork for a piece of flexible plastic fencing. Phyllis went back into the barn to have a talk with Rex. After a minute Rex came ambling back out. Rex appeared in the door and moved forward to take another look in the trailer. Paul swatted him lightly on the back with the plastic fence post. Rex seemed to like the look of the hay in the trailer, climbed in and began to eat. Everyone scrambled to shut the trailer door. Another job well done.

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