When we got married in 1994, my husband was the proud owner of a small herd of Brown Swiss cows and a bull named Shalom.
It is true that in the cattle world Brown Swiss bulls are said to be more docile than Holstein or Jersey bulls, yet “peace” was not a concept that came to my mind as I was getting acquainted with this herd sire across the strong iron bars of his bull pen. A Brown Swiss cow is an impressive animal, but one that, unless she is disturbed or excited by unusual circumstances, regards her surroundings through large, sleepy eyes and moves with a calm dignity that a bull can only dream of.
He, on the other hand, is always alert and his world is filled with suspicious strangers, dangerous dogs, veterinarians, hoof trimmers, other bulls and – worst of all – women in skirts! He moves around his pen in a jerky fashion, throwing his head this way and that, pawing at the ground and throwing up clods of dirt. If a stranger stays around in spite of all this off-putting behavior, the bull raises his voice in a bellow that will rattle the visitor’s bones and make him think of roaring lions in the zoo – animals that make their threats known in no uncertain way.
Overcoming my initial intimidation, I learned that our Shalom was a good sort of bull. He got used to the human in skirts and to his new pen and settled down, eating his hay, battering the water trough and watching everything that went on around the farm yard. Eventually, my husband turned him out to pasture with some cows that had not conceived through artificial insemination where he grazed contentedly and only rarely found it necessary to bellow at a tractor intruding into his territory. He was a splendid sight, out on the green triticale. Contrasting with the cows in a darker brown and in his muscled size, he was easily spotted from a distance – and avoided when walking across the fields.
Over the years, we kept numerous bulls, some bought from reputable Brown Swiss breeders, others born and bred on our farm. Among them were Papa and Ferdinand. Ferdinand was the last calf of an outstanding creamy white cow named Brenda, and we kept him in the hopes of seeing her beauty and productivity in milk repeated in our herd’s heifer crop. We named him after the bull in Munro’s children’s book who wanted to smell the flowers rather than fight men. However, the way a bull calf is raised does not seem to be a factor in his disposition toward humans when fully grown. We bottle-feed our calves, and all of them receive a fair amount of individual attention from our kids and ourselves. When they are moved into the weanlings’ pen, they are fed by hand and still receive the odd head rub and special treat. But the older a bull grows, the more of a threat he will be to those who come into daily contact with him, and a tame bull is more unhesitating and fearless in his attacks on humans.
This is the reason why we usually have to part with older bulls, even those of relatively calm disposition, great pedigree and magnificent build. Unlike the cows, they seem to know their own strength, smell our fear and instinctively use both to their own advantage and the protection of the herd. Unfortunately for them, in the human-controlled environment of the farm, where feed is supplied in proportion to usefulness (to the farmer), and usefulness is in direct proportion to manageability, aggressive bulls inevitably end up being shoved onto a cattle trailer and carted off to the sale barn.
We parted with Papa after he tried to pin my husband to one of the steel towers supporting the irrigation system. The bull had been let out onto the triticale-rye pasture with a small group of heifers where he seemed to enjoy his quiet but social existence. But every day when my husband came out to the adjacent field to reverse the arm of the irrigation system before it hit Papa’s pen, the animal would pace along the fence roaring threats that my husband tried to ignore. Those could be heard all the way to the barn and house, and so I took note one day when the roars seemed to crescendo into thundering fury.
Climbing on the back of the pickup in the yard, I shaded my eyes to look toward the glittering tip of the irrigation arm in the south field. What I saw made my heart race: There was the dark shape of the bull, no longer in his pen but running around a supporting tower of the irrigation system in wide circles, throwing up clods of dirt and bellowing in frustrated rage. And there was the tiny shape of my husband trying to keep the steel structure between himself and Papa.
I jumped into the cab of the pickup, and for once it started up obediently. I bumped out on the pasture lane at a speed I would not normally attempt anywhere. I had to open a gate and then we flew across the green field toward man and beast still engaged in their peculiar pas-de-deux. Papa paused at the sound of the engine and considered the oncoming red vehicle. My husband, never slow in an emergency, made a dash for the sideboard, yanked the door open and was in the cab next to me in a flash. We turned around and were on our way out the field gate before the bull had come to a conclusion concerning the threat posed by red pickups. While we were catching our breath in the yard, Papa calmly returned through the torn-up fence into his pen to join his ladies who had shown little interest in his exhibition of strength and courage.
Needless to say, he was on his way to the cattle auction the very next sale day.
Originally from Switzerland, where she was an English teacher, Andrea Nisly came to Kansas 20 years ago to farm and dairy with her husband, Calvin, in Reno County. They have four children.