There’s a whole herd of terms to describe the bovine barnyard population on a dairy. Calves are born after a gestation or pregnancy period of about nine months. The birth of a calf is simply called calving. A calf can stand within a few minutes of being born. He or she typically starts to suckle within an hour. A calf is able to follow its mother around after one week.
Calf is a term used from birth to weaning – the removing of the suckling calf from its mother. Calves are ear-tagged within hours of birth so the mother can always be identified. In some places such as Europe it’s a legal requirement. Calves are vaccinated and males are castrated within two months.
A heifer is what a young female calf is called from birth until she has a calf of her own. When the heifer becomes a mother, usually after about age two or three, we call her a “cow.”
A castrated male is called a “steer.” He’s destined for the meat market.
A “bull” is an adult male that has not been castrated. His job is to impregnate the cows, sort of a one-on-one procedure, or to provide sperm for artificial insemination.
A cow or heifer that’s near calving time is referred to as a “springer.” A “fresh cow” is a cow or first-calf heifer that has recently given birth. We say the cow has “freshened.”
Young calves slaughtered for human consumption provide veal. In the old West an orphan calf that had lost its mother was termed a “dogie” as in “get along little dogie.”
A new mother cow will try to hide her infant calf; a newborn calf can’t keep up with the herd. We noticed this on our Oak Grove Ridge farm in Crawford County, Wisconsin. Our cows were put out to graze in some pastures that were partially wooded. We Scheckel boys had the task of counting the cows as they came in for milking about 5 p.m. If one was missing we knew we needed to go search for it in the woods.
Wisconsin has 1.3 million dairy cows living on 10,000 dairy farms. That’s an average herd size of 130 cows. Wisconsin is the No. 1 producer of cheese in the United States, but number two behind California in milk production. That makes sense. The people population of California is about 38 million; Wisconsin is about 5.8 million. California has almost seven times the population of Wisconsin. Shipping costs are expensive so it’s best to produce milk where the people reside.
Holsteins are the most popular breed in Wisconsin, accounting for 90 percent of the total. They give the most milk. I’m partial to Brown Swiss; they have the most beautiful eyes.
Oxen are castrated adult male cattle. They are trained to work; castration makes them gentler. Early-American farmers used oxen as draft animals because they were able to haul heavy loads, plow fields, move logs, thresh grain by trampling and pull out stumps when clearing land. Oxen were often yoked in pairs. Oxen sported horns, which allowed them to back up and not have the yoke slip off.
It was oxen that started pioneers westward on the Oregon Trail. Horses and mules were harder to handle, spooked easily and needed good grass for grazing. Oxen were slower but more reliable and much tougher than mules or horses. They could survive on rather poor grass.
Oxen were easily trained, docile and obedient. A man or older boy led the oxen with a leash. Contrary to the depiction in movies those hardy people didn’t ride in the wagons and schooners. They walked from Missouri to Oregon and California.
Any breed of cattle can be trained to be “oxen” but some breeds and individuals were selected for their size, intelligence and willingness to learn. Both male and female cattle were used for what we call “oxen.” Oxen gave milk to those early farmers and westbound travelers. They could be bred to produce more oxen, giving the farmer replacements rather than buying new stock. At the end of their life oxen provided food for the family.