‘Which one is the dominant animal?” my husband, Bruce, asked over the phone. Without hesitation, I said, Topper.
We had pastured a small herd of our Scottish Highlander cattle in Canterbury, the next town over from ours, and all of them had escaped through an open gate. Since I was at the Nashua Farmers Market, Bruce had to get them back.
We had put nine Highlanders into the pasture a week earlier. There were two pairs of working oxen, a 4-H heifer and four halter-trained steers in the group. All were friendly and easy to handle, but it was still a herd with traditional herd dynamics. Every herd has a leader and a pecking order. Understanding the herd hierarchy is critical in cattle management.
In this case, for instance, the herd leader, Topper, respects and trusts me. He is one of a pair of oxen I’ve trained to work in a yoke. As his superior; I have control of him, and since I have control of him, I control the herd. The second in command is Stash, who is Topper’s teammate and the rest rank below these two.
Even though Topper would never push me around, he would push JoJo, a smaller steer. Even so, if I’m hanging out with JoJo and Topper attacks him, JoJo could trample me trying to escape. So when I walk among cattle, I’m always watching the dominant animals.
Cattle ranking lower on the hierarchy have to wait while the top cattle munch on the hay I deliver daily at our home pasture. When the dominant cows are done eating they will move off so those lower in the pecking-order can eat. My job is to make sure there is enough hay for everyone.
A dominant animal won’t stay on top forever. Rosie, a 15-year-old cow, lost her status when she contracted arthritis, which slowed her down. When a top bovine hits the skids, there is no residual respect. A new leader takes over, and there’s no such thing as bovine emeritus. I eventually had to feed Rosie separately so she wouldn’t starve.
While bovine hierarchy can seem weird and silly, we need to realize it’s not so different from human behavior. We have leaders and followers, which can work well. We have bullies and victims, which does not work well. The difference is that we humans can apply some intelligence and humanity to rein in our instinctive behavior.
When Bruce got to the Canterbury field, he saw Topper run up the roadway and into the field with the rest of the herd straggling behind. The land-owner, Ty, had enticed the herd with a pan of chicken feed and managed to get a rope around Topper’s neck. At that point, Topper decided it was time to end his walkabout without a struggle. In fact, he ran ahead of Ty, returning to the confines of his 20-acre pasture-taking his followers with him.
After the herd voluntarily returned to the field, I got a call from the Canterbury Police. Someone had called them about our wandering cattle, and he wanted to have our contact information on file in case they ever got loose again. A respecter of authority, I complied with the request, and if I’m ever summoned to round up any escapees, I’ll get right on it. I only hope that Topper doesn’t find out there’s someone higher up the totem pole than his own boss. It could topple my empire!
(Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs and other local products. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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