This week I ran an ad in a farm paper looking for cows set to calve this spring. The phone has rung a couple of times.
One caller had some Angus cows to sell that sounded wonderful -- actually too wonderful and more than we could invest. This did not inhibit our conversation much, and we rattled on about cattle for quite some time. He was justifiably proud of his pedigreed herd and talked about genetics and show cattle.
I told him of our woes with a sterile bull and the unbred herd. He listened and then cataloged bull troubles he had encountered in his years raising cattle. A couple of times the conversation got to "It's been nice talking to you," only to find new legs and march on.
People who find something in common aren't strangers, and cattle people love to talk cows. There is a lot to say, after all. First there is the matter of breeds. Unlike the dairy world, which is dominated by Holsteins, beef producers have their pick of a wide array of cattle breeds. Most beef people are partial to one breed and are as loyal as any football fan.
The Black Angus breeder at the other end of the phone line was a case in point. Angus fanciers seem to view the rest of us with a bemused sympathy, because their dark-colored calves usually bring a higher price these days.
Maybe they have earned the right to brag, for they are the group that had the initiative to advertise its product to the public and convince people that Angus beef was superior.
Non-Angus farmers are often advised, "If you aren't going to switch to Angus cows, at least improve your herd with an Angus bull."
I usually counter with a list of the merits of the Hereford breed -- their good disposition, respect for fences and how well they winter and calve. Herefords are easy cows to like and form a good genetic basis for two- and three-way crosses. Sometimes when I get going, I throw in that they look good, red and white, especially the curly ones.
Every cattle breed has its cheering section. Simmental fanciers will sing the praises of their big cows. If you bump into a Belgian Blue booster, plan on spending a while listening to the advantages of their cows' deep "double-muscled" configuration. Not to be outdone,beefalo farmers will talk your ears off touting the low-cholesterol meat they can produce.
And that's just the issue of breeds. If a conversation wants to keep going, there are many other topics as well, such as pastures.
Grass isn't just grass anymore. No one gets tongue-tied when the matter of forages comes up. Oprah Winfrey hasn't caught on to this yet, but a good talk show could be built around arguing the merits of competing varieties of orchard grass. Should it be mixed with Ladino, or will good old-fashioned red clover do as well? Want controversy? Bring up the idea of grazing alfalfa. No doubt about it, there is no shortage of fodder for cow talk.
Sunday, I drove over to look at a small herd of breed cows a couple of counties away. After making my way up some snowy hills I found the back-road junctions just as Pete had described them on the phone. I parked by his house, shook hands, then pulled on my coveralls and boots and climbed into his truck for a ride over to the barn. Pete explained that their cash crop was beans, but they also enjoyed grazing beef cattle and raising calves.
I could see his affection for the cattle, a collection of Hereford-Angus cross cows, some black and some red. He called them by name and rattled off their family trees. The cows were clean, well-fed and not unsettled with us in the barnyard.
I admired the feeder he had designed and welded. We talked about winter watering systems as I watched the cows and let a decision form in my mind. Half the cows were heifers, but they had good size and would probably calve without trouble.
We went back to the house, and I was pleased to accept an invitation for a cup of coffee. It was pleasant sitting in Pete and Marcy's warm kitchen. They produced a herd record book, complete with photos of the cattle and their calves, with health and care notes recorded below. Cups were re-filled, and we enjoyed some more good cow talk before the afternoon dimmed and it was time for me to go.