Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Organic farmer Rosamund Young has been communicating with and observing her cows for decades. She reveals their secrets. 

Cows are integral to our food system. The dairy industry in Australia is worth some four billion dollars a year. Through science and other measures, cows have doubled their milk production over the last thirty years. Despite cows being so important, we remain ignorant about their intelligence and personalities. Popularly, cows are considered more as dumb and docile beasts.

Shining a light on these matters is farmer Rosamund Young, who runs Kite’s Nest Farm with her brother and partner. Kite’s Nest Farm produces beef and lamb from grass fed animals that are butchered and sold in the farm shop. Their philosophy is to let the animals run free, choose what plants and grasses they prefer to eat and socialise how they like. When the animals are allowed to live as they see best, their health is improved and they lead more contented lives. This regime has allowed Rosamund Young to observe cows (and other farm animals, including hens, pigs and lambs, of which she also writes) up close.

What she finds, essentially, is that cows behave pretty much like your much doted on household pet. They communicate by “mooing” and with their eyes, staring at you until they get what they want. Failing that they can simply refuse to move when requested. We learn that cows can recognise individual humans by their voices, love eating apples, like to be groomed, enjoy music and can make friends. In one touching description Young describes two young calves born at the same time that became instant friends, and friends for life. They constantly doted and looked after each other. Cows are even clever enough to ask for help if they have mastitis (a disease that affects their udders).

One of most fascinating claims of the book is that cows self-medicate by choosing particular plants to eat. Perhaps one day we shall consult cows when we have a medical problem.

Rosamund Young writes in lively, almost eccentric manner, referring to the way she “talks” to the cows and how they can understand her. The style veers almost towards P.G. Wodehouse (think of Empress the pig of the Blandings Castle novels). But I think there is a method in Young’s anthropomorphism: she really wants us to think of cows not as dumb units of economic production, but as inspired creatures with endlessly fascinating lives of their own. In this she achieves her brief.

The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young. Published by Faber. ISBN: 9780571336777  RRP:$19.99

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