As far as possible, I always try to let the cows be cows. What do I mean by that, you may ask? Cows, by their very nature, can at times do some pretty interesting things. Being on a farm where the grazing animals are Holstein, Jersey and three-way crosses gives you a nice cross-section of all the different personalities one can encounter on a dairy.

Some of our Jerseys I would classify as recalcitrant, contumacious and rapscallion-like. They just seem to be more curious and have a greater propensity for getting into mischief.

Things like sticking their heads in places they shouldn’t, rolling their tongues for what seems like hours and occasionally testing the electric fence. Putting their nosey selves into any kind of action is what they live for.

Contrast these with our Holsteins, who seem to be verecund, thewless and sometimes supercilious! That would definitely apply to our herd leader, #91 – she is all of these things and more at the same time. She is the “Big Boss” of 230 milk cows.

She can eat in any stanchion she chooses, dominates a water trough and will control half of a round bale feeder just because of who she is. Yet there are times when she is 500 yards from the nearest cow in the grazing field, while 100 other cows are so close together you can’t slip a piece of paper between them.


It is almost comical to see what a jackanapes she is going to the milking parlor. In our double-six herringbone, she will stare down any cow who comes in behind her. As if to say “Be careful; do not touch me.”

Reminds me when my four kids where young and we went on road trips. “Dad, he’s touching me!” Now, if she is held up with a group of cows in a side pen of the return lane, when other cows enter and notice that “91” is in there, they will slam the brakes on and try to four-wheel-drive it as fast as they can to get away from her.

It is so predictable that it is more than a coincidence. It’s a conspiracy and an outright funny one at that. Who knew that a cow could be bipolar?

My observation is that Holsteins, as a group, used to be ferocious mothers 20 some years ago. Today, though, it seems that so many of them have lost that mothering instinct. Could that be because we have taken calves away from their mothers so soon after birth because of the threat of Johne’s disease?

Do cows “learn” from watching other cows calve? “Nonsense,” you say, it’s instinctive behavior – cows are “hardwired” that way. I have spoken to dozens of dairymen who have observed the same thing that I have. That is that they have seen more Holsteins drop a calf and walk the other direction. Almost like they possess no motherly instincts whatsoever.

I have talked to dairymen who, after so many years raising large Holsteins, made the transition to crossbreds. Two dairymen related almost the same identical experiences: After having a very high Holstein (over 29,000) herd average and trying to use the best semen, an episode would periodically repeat itself: Rising at 2 a.m. to pull a calf from a large Holstein cow.

Cow down, calf trauma, despite 40 years’ experience pulling calves correctly. Not only a dead 120-lb bull calf, but a cow that dies despite the “kitchen sink” being used to save her life. This 68-year-old just sat down and cried.

He was tired of losing another nice cow. He was determined to make whatever changes this situation called for. He would no longer be the tendentious person who believed that only Holsteins fit the bill. He would look at those “little brown faces” and crossbreed to see if that would improve his determination not to lose his best cows.

I am happy to write that since going to a crossbreeding and Jersey program he has not had a death in over five years. He also says that his services per conception are 1.3 compared to 3.4 for his straight Holsteins.

These and other reasons are some of the reasons why people like crossbred animals. The heterosis makes quite a difference in the calving area for sure. My experience has been that crossbred animals certainly breed easier.

I have also noted that they will also run at times for what seems like a “recreation period” without any prompting from humans. They are certainly more athletic as a group than most Holsteins I have seen. I have been privileged to work with a high-producing Holstein group.

Our high group of 85 cows in a herd of 600 cows averaged 135 lbs per day. They were fed well nutritionally and really rewarded our dairy. I have also been privileged to work with Jerseys who averaged over 80 lbs per day.

What other crazy “quirks” have we observed cows doing? How about cows who only come in one side or the other of the milking parlor, being either righties or lefties only? Just try to get little Miss Wonderful to come in the right side when she only likes the left.

Can you say “ring around the rosy?” Sometimes it’s simply easier to “recycle” the cows, as I like to say. It really comes down to being observant as to which cows like which side. Let the cows be cows! And what about those cows who will never lead but love being second?

Also the cows that have to stop every three feet and stare at their neighbors on the other side of the parlor. Besides the ones who stop to smell every hose hanging down, or they perceive a new smell. Why yes – Jose is eating a pastrami sandwich.

Or have you ever observed the cows when someone builds a fire 100 feet away. Boy, the fight or flight response really kicks in. But perhaps you have had the unfortunate happening of the rendering truck pulling onto the farm.

Wow! Two hundred voices bawling at the top of their lungs because their sister cow passed away. I have observed this three different times, and you will never forget that sound.

Another crazy moment that cows occasionally will have is when they will go out of their way to drink from a mud puddle when nice clean drinking water is 15 feet away. Go figure! Is this a mineral deficiency the cow is trying to correct or what? Generally, given a choice, a cow will always choose the cleanest and freshest water.

That being said, let me get back to check on cow #91 – to see who she is tormenting and if she will allow all the other cows to just be cows. PD


Harley Wagenseller
Dairy Manager