May 2008
On the Edge of Common Sense

Mothering Instinct

by Baxter Black, DVM

For years, New Mexico State University managed a ranch on the Jornada, running Santa Gertrudis’ cattle. One of the vivid lessons I learned was the intense protectiveness of the Braymer-blood mama cows. If you stepped into the high-fenced corrals with the mothers and their young’uns, you were asking for trouble. They were big, dark red, rangey and high-horned. When one turned her head and locked you in her gaze, you knew how it felt to look down the barrel of a cannon and see Darth Vader peekin’ back!

In genteel terms, in the cow business that behavior is called ‘good mothering instinct.’ That’s like describing my teenage son’s socks as "making a bold statement." The instinct is characteristic in the females of most species, with notable exceptions in the seahorse, the penguin and certain celebrities.

A strong mothering instinct insures the propagation of the species. Coupled with the male instinct to pollinate frequently and it’s no wonder there are so many jackrabbits and rich child support lawyers.

But, back to Braymer cows. My Canadian friend Don has raised rodeo bucking bulls for many years. He selects his breeding cows and sires from practicing-proven good buckers. Cow #19-L was a black brockle-face Braymer with the face of a gargoyle. Don weaned her first calf last fall and put him in a corral to precondition half a mile away.

Gargolita (19-L) went apoplectic! She could not see her baby – he was gone! She ran the fence line in the pasture in a bawling frenzy. Other, more mature cows tried to explain why this was done, how weaning was a natural process and when she could expect the soreness in her udder to abate. All to no avail!

Gargolita crashed through the north fence and raced toward the barn. She leaped a Texas gate (cattle guard in Alberta), took the pavement into Black Falls and turned south. Through a stop sign, the school zone, road construction and the constables having coffee, she followed her nose! On RD 189 she turned back west and ran the 2 miles back to Don’s place, jumped another Texas gate and found her baby at last!

He had been munching a starter feed-mix and hangin’ out with other ‘teenage’ calves, griping about their parents. Suddenly he heard his mother bawling! "Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? I’ve been worried sick! No more salt lick for you! Clean your room! Pick up after yourself! Moo, moo. moo…"

Of course, Don never heard all this. He just found 19-L standing outside the corral and her calf cringing in the opposite corner.

Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website,