Holy Cow! Encounters Goes Down Under


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

Black Angus on a cattle station in NSW, Australia

Black Angus on a cattle station in NSW, Australia

I’m on a cattle station in New South Wales in Australia, working on a program about cows.
I had an excellent time this morning with a little herd of about 35 black Angus cows and their calves, grazing in a broad, open pasture. I wanted to record their sounds, so I approached very slowly and then stood in one place for a long time.

Eventually, as I had expected, the cows started coming my way, until they were all around me, standing quietly, ears up, huge dark eyes fixed on me, as if they were fascinated, hypnotized, or waiting for me to take charge.

The longer I kept still, the closer they came, until several had approached within touching distance. Now they were arranged in a semicircle, like a theater audience at a one man show, every cow and calf staring at me.

After about twenty minutes, some of the cows started shuffling around and grazing, and several calves began nursing from their mothers’ distended udders. I turned on the recorder and caught a pretty nice sample of cow sounds: huffing, groaning, grunting, mooing, shuffling back and forth, nudging and shoving, grazing and chewing. One cow leaned out to snuffle at the parabolic microphone. And I also recorded the surprisingly loud sucking and smacking sounds of twin calves nursing side-by-side.

After about 45 minutes the herd gradually lost interest and meandered away, grazing and scattering through the lush green grass; and I was left alone in our meeting place.

I’ve never stayed so long with a bunch of cows and found them as interesting as they had found me. I was struck, above all else, by their protracted, silent, fixed, singular focus on me, as if I had been an object of careful study. And I was equally impressed by their gentleness—these huge animals that could easily bowl me over if they had felt inclined. If I made even a small unexpected movement, they startled back as if they imagined I was ten times their size and dangerous as a lion. This misperception of humans, along with a shy temperament and easy compliance, must have been bred into cattle over thousands of years.

Many of us who live in the North spend a lot of time thinking about the animals that feed us, like moose, caribou, and deer. But we rarely think at all about the other animal in our lives—the unseen, unsung cow—that gives us milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream; perhaps the occasional steak or burger; as well leather for our shoes and wallets and seat covers.  RN

Mark Bethka