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Holstein dairy cows in pasture Daviles/Getty Images
TIME KEEPERS: Cows may not be able to talk, but they can keep time with internal clocks.

Long wait for ‘cows to come home’

Front Porch: If you don’t think cows are smart, you were never a dairy producer.

Whenever Hoosiers mess with nature by setting clocks forward or backward, it reminds me of the silliness of trying to outsmart Father Time. Some people wear smart watches today, but animals have the original “smart watches.” They’re built in. And they’re never more obvious than in dairy cows.

When we “fell back” a few weeks ago and it was lighter in the morning, it reminded me of one of my favorite stories my late father, Robert, told. Every dairyman has stories to tell, and Dad was no exception.

Early morning hours
Dad certainly had an early morning wake-up call. His goal was to be at the barn shortly after 4:30 a.m., set up to milk by 5, let the cows in the holding area a few minutes after 5, and be milking in his three-stall Surge, side-opening parlor by 5:15. If all went well, he would be done milking 40 head, cleaned up and in the house for breakfast by 7:30. 

He recalled one morning in late fall when he awoke, glanced at his watch and figured it was time to milk. He dressed and took the short walk to the barn, set up the milking machines, and walked back to open the door to the loafing shed. Usually cows were waiting on him.

On this particularly dark, unusually chilly morning, he opened the door, and there were no cows to greet him. He mumbled to himself because this was the late ’60s, which meant they were out to pasture and he’d have to go after them. He called but nobody came. He didn’t even hear a familiar moo.

He climbed on the John Deere 620 two lunger. ATVs weren’t invented yet, but at least the tractor had lights. He drove to the pasture, finally spying the cows lying down near the lone tree in the middle of the field.

The neighbor who lived across the road from that tree would later say it was Dad’s yelling, not the tractor, that woke him up in what seemed like the middle of the night. The cows were in no hurry to move.

What time is it, anyway?
Finally, he got the boss cow going without running over her. As she went, so went the herd, reluctantly tromping up the cow path toward the barn.

Dad fed grain in the parlor, but only the greediest were interested in coming in for feed that morning. Finally, he finished milking and cleaning up, opened the lid of the milk tank, thought the level seemed a bit less than normal, closed the lid and opened the door to leave.

The faint glow of dawn was forming on the eastern horizon. That seemed odd, he thought. Finally, he looked at his watch. It was 5:30, not 7:30! He looked again. Sure enough, by Daylight Savings Time, Central Time, Standard Time — whatever time, it was predawn. When he had glanced at his watch in the house earlier, he thought it was 4:30, but it was only 2:30!

No wonder the girls weren’t at the barn door. No wonder they thought the wild man on the green monster was nuts. No wonder they gave less milk.

And you think your “smart watch” is more accurate than a cow’s internal clock?

TAGS: Dairy
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