Bovine babysitters give mom a break

  • Misty, a Highlander cow, and Helen, a Hereford cow, babysit while the other mothers eat at the feed bunker. Black Diamond, a two-year-old Highlander heifer and babysitter-in-training, shares the hay pile. Courtesy of Carole Soule

  • Rain and Roxy, Highlander calves, share a “play date.” Courtesy of Carole Soule

For the Monitor
Published: 5/17/2019 1:28:30 PM
Modified: 5/17/2019 1:28:17 PM

When Mom wants to dine out, what does she do with the kids? Getting a babysitter is an option. Believe it or not, cows do the same.

Cows come in many personalities. One cow, Star, doesn’t care if her baby, Rain, scampers off with her pasture-mates to investigate a strange rock or clump of dirt and explore the pasture. Star searches for grass or bites of hay unaware of where her child is until Rain needs to refuel.

Other cows are much more attentive. “Helicopter mom” Misty will not let her calf, Matilda, out of sight. If Matilda runs off, Mom hovers a few feet behind.

These are two extremes on the spectrum of maternal involvement. Sarah and most other cows are somewhere in between. Sarah stood patiently while her calf, Sugar, learned to nurse and now she pays less attention to her.

Despite their styles, this year all seven moms (with eight more calves due) at Miles Smith Farm are good single parents. But these gals need some “me time,” especially at feeding time. That’s when a babysitter is required. Calves instinctively depend on an adult. If Mom is not around, another cow will do. At my farm, as often as not that cow is Misty; she of the super-maternal instincts.

When the mothers walk from the pasture to eat the veggie scraps or brewers grain that we serve twice a day at the feed bunker, Misty usually stays behind watching over the babies. The calves see their moms leave, but because Misty or sometimes Barbie stay behind, so do the babies, untempted by solid food. As long as an adult is in sight, the calves feel safe and won’t follow their mothers.

On Mother’s Day, Thor, a chocolate-colored bull calf, slept in the hay pile while two red heifers, Rain and Roxy, butted heads and bounced around on their young legs. The other calves watched the two cavort, thinking about joining their antics. Misty and Helen, the on-duty babysitters, munched on hay, watching, while the other mothers – out of sight in another paddock – brunched sumptuously at the feed-bunker. Eventually, the cows made their way back into the field where each baby sought out their own mom for a drink of milk.

The mothers take turns babysitting. During the evening Mother’s Day feeding, Virginia and Maya stayed with the youngsters while Misty and Barbie got a chance at the feed-bunker salad bar. I’m not sure how the cows determine who stays behind with the babies, but they seem to work it out. It never occurs to them to ask Dad to mind the kids for a few minutes, and it’s just as well. He’s busy doing nothing.

(Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, where she raises and sells pork, lamb, eggs and beef. She can be reached at

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