On Cattle's "Palpable Self-Esteem"

All cattle will build a social order within the herd. While the rank of a dairy cow is based almost entirely on its mass, Aberdeen-Angus beef cattle sort out their dominance much more complexly, in "another indication that they have a palpable self-esteem," writes M.R. Montgomery, M.A.T. '65, Nf '84. The former Boston Globe writer has an infectious interest in bovines, communicated in A Cow's Life: The Surprising History of Cattle and How the Black Angus Came to Be Home on the Range (Walker, $25).

Dominance, for lack of a clearer word, is a way of reducing antagonistic behaviors. In the peck ing order of old-fashioned barnyard chickens, it could be de- scribed as a scale from one to infinity, where the number one chicken could peck any other chicken with impunity and the last chicken couldn't peck anyone. As little family flocks of chicks reach maturity, they are gathered into the larger flock's pecking order and find their level....[O]nce dominance is acquired, antagonistic pecking almost disappears and the occasional bout between two chickens is brief....

At vaccination time, bosses choose to go last.
Image copyright © 2004 Gerald Foster, from the book

In cattle, the acquisition of dominance by individuals produces a social order in which no excess energy is expended arguing over who gets the first shot at food and water. Dominant cows and bulls get first pickings. Even with 50 cows trying to get at one or two ring-feeders, there is surprisingly little pushing and shoving. Dominance in cattle is the equivalent of table manners in human beings. Unlike chickens, cattle start sorting out the order when they are very young. Aberdeen-Angus calves just a few weeks old are constantly playing with one another. They have what appear to be footraces and a kind of wrestling that imitates adult sexual behavior by alternatively mounting each other until one runs off. Very early in life, butting or shoving each other around is the most common interaction or, from the looks of it, their favorite game. They don't run at one another; they carefully move in close, make head-to-head contact, and see who can push whom backward. In a few weeks or a month, the amount of butting among the calves is noticeably reduced and, by the time they are grazing as well as suckling, extremely occasional....

It seems cruel in a world of superabundance, with meals guaranteed and water assured, that calm and well-behaved domesticated animals should insist on hierarchy, on dominance. But cattle are just at the edge of domestication, and Aberdeen-Angus a little closer to the primal state than some breeds. The rancher has to take the whole animal. If he wants a cow that will protect its calf (up to a point and when appropriate), a cow that will range widely in a summer pasture, exploring to the fence lines for particularly choice morsels of grass and brush and in springtime for the delectable flower stalks of the soap yuccas; if he needs a cow that can stand stoically next to her calf in a blizzard and not drift with the wind, then he has also to accept the bullying, the chain of dominance....

The ranch is not a cruel place, not nearly so cruel as that state of nature where all life is brutish and short. But the sharp and dangerous edge of nature penetrates into the wintry fields and the summer pastures. This constant creation and maintenance of the herd's hierarchy among these gentle and caregiving mothers is the price of being cattle, just as surely as sorrow is the price of being human.  

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