She Was Just a Cow, But…

105182105411111CDPby Neva Bodin

“Yeah, that’s a lot of hamburger on the hoof!” “Just a dumb critter.” Both of these observations have been carelessly made regarding cows. But…there was a cow….

Her name was Penny. A dark red coat covered her from hoof to ears, making her look like she wore a turtleneck sweater. A white face and pink nose completed her bovine look. A big sandpaper tongue could rough you up with love if you got too close. Her motive in life, primal or pure–she wanted to be a mama.Newborn_hereford JPE (2)

This story starts in late spring. For the third year in a row, Penny took matters into her own hands…er…hooves. Our plans just weren’t put into action quick enough for Penny.

On a beef farm, the annual births of calves are scheduled. Shelter space, marketing time, and weather all figure in. On our Minnesota farm, the bull was re-united with his cow harem each June. This meant births in March the following year. Penny couldn’t wait.

Turned free along with her sister cows to sample the tender new shoots of green grass in the pasture in April, the fresh spring air brought thoughts of love to Penny’s de-horned head. And since our bull wasn’t yet available to choose for a daddy for her next baby, Penny campaigned to find another.

Grass occupied her attention for a time, then satiated, she raised her head, surveyed the blue sky and greening hills and sniffed the floating spring scents. She smelled grass, earth and…wait…a bull?

charolais bull 2 JPEG
“Taureau charolais au pré” by Forum – Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – wiki/File:Taureau_charolais_au_ pr%C3%A9.jpg#/ media/File: Taureau_charolais_au_ pr%C3%A9.jpg

Penny’s heart surely quickened. A primitive force took over and she began to paw the ground. A bellow, low and beseeching, rose from the bottom of her aproned neck to echo out her throat, rumbling across the hills to the neighboring farm. An answering bellow rumbled back, and Penny tossed her head.

She didn’t even tear the fence down as she leapt over the barbed wire. Her excitement created winged hooves that flew over dampened, dormant, late winter hills to the one who answered her call.

He was handsome–white and well muscled…majestic.Their tryst didn’t last long; the neighbor called our farm to report an extra cow. We hauled her home, but Penny didn’t care by then, her mission had been accomplished.

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Nine months later, Penny gave birth to a beautiful white calf that favored her daddy. We named her Lilly. Penny was a proud mama. We didn’t see the dark cloud that lay on the horizon outside the cow corral.

Lilly was a little subdued for a new calf. When she was a couple weeks old, the vet was called to our farm to treat another calf. With practiced eye, he saw Lilly and named the dark cloud we hadn’t noticed . Noting the subtly different shape of Lilly’s forehead, He remarked, “That’s a water-head calf,”  Lilly would not live to adulthood. We didn’t tell Penny.

Saddened, we watched Penny care for her baby. At first things went quite well. Then at two months, Lilly no longer followed Penny to the pasture. While growing physically, she also grew short of breath and more sluggish. But she ate hay from the feeder and nursed as usual. Penny went out to graze the wooded hills, returning two to three times each day to the corral, washing and feeding her failing baby. The bond was strong.

At three months of age, Lilly lay down and died. Penny returned home to find her baby quiet and still. She mooed, encouraging Lilly to get up. Watching over her baby through the night, she went to the pasture the next morning to eat, then returned to Lily’s body.

Lilly needed burying. My husband used the loader tractor to dig a calf-sized grave in the corner of our corral. Penny was present as the loader bucket transported Lilly to her grave and covered her with black Minnesota dirt. The gravesite smoothed over, we left Penny alone in the corral.

Three days later, I came home from work and glanced at the corral. Penny still stood, her head bowed over the darkened dirt of Lilly’s grave, lowing mournfully. The tears ran down my cheeks. I was a mama too.


26 thoughts on “She Was Just a Cow, But…

  1. What a sad story. Love abounds in the animal world. We should never think we monopolize emotions like love. I’ve got to ask, Neva, what made you choose to write this story for us? What triggered the idea?


    1. It was a story I wrote quite a while ago, after we lived on the farm and had moved from that farm. I think it was so unique and so humanlike for Penny to visit her daughter’s grave for three days, that I had to write the experience down. It really touched something in me and having grown up on a farm, I have learned to love yet manage animals for food and income, and usually keep my emotions on a different level than the level Penny touched in me that day of mourning. And I like people to understand that even though animals have no future plans perhaps, they do have emotions as you said. It’s just a story I wanted to share because it touched me so deeply I guess. Thanks for asking.


  2. What a lovely story of the resilience of motherhood. This story is touching and what a wonderful cow Penney must have been. How wonderful for you to watch her achieve her highest dreams and sad to see those dreams dashed. Lovely that you have these memories and this post gives us an insight into emotions we think can only come from humans. Thank you Neva. Great post!


    1. Thanks Linda. It is illustrative of a common denominator in motherhood, irregardless of the species isn’t it? Penny had many other calves of course, but that’s the one I remember. We had a cow named Blondie who abandoned her calf the moment it was born. The calf was born without eyes. So we can see the fickleness of motherhood too, irregardless of species also. In the animal world, that would be called suvival of the fittest though I guess. I loved our cows.


    1. Penny recovered, or got through her grief. I had never seen a cow exhibit that kind of behavior, although they always grieved for a time when their calves were weaned. They visited and bellowed. But of course Penny knew where the grave was.


  3. I didn’t expect such a sad moving story. I admit I teared up. It actually reminds me of a book I read by Jodi Picoult, her first “mystery” called LEAVING TIME. A lot of the story took place in an elephant sanctuary. It left me a bawling mess. The author meticulously researched the behavior of elephants and they are quite similar to humans as far as the bonds of motherhood. Thanks so much for this, Neva. One question though: what’s a water-head calf?


    1. It’s a hydrocephalic, or one where the fluid that surrounds the brain can’t drain off. In humans they now put a shunt in. Years ago little kids’s heads got quite large due to that fluid collecting there. In my early years as a nurse I saw several children with that condition. It was very sad also. Now they fix them at birth I think. You will see the scars where the shunt has been put in but not the enlarged heads usually anymore. It is usually something they are born with. And it’s not debilitating anymore. Thank goodness.


    1. Yes, it is amazing how many emotions animals have. And need in order to continue the species. Recently watched a lot of unusual animal couples and they were very interesting–the bonds animals form with unlike species even in the wild. Thanks for commenting.


    1. It was always fun to watch the cows get their new babies in the spring and how they cared for them and forgot about last year’s baby. While we had a cow who abandoned her baby at birth when it was born without eyes, some mama’s hid their babies and led us in the opposite direction when we went to look for them. I loved our cows, they were relaxing, cud-chewing beings. We did have one mama, “Sugar”, who was often seen with her daughters from the past two years standing beside her though. I’ve never seen another cow do that. THanks for commenting.


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