If there is one thing that fascinates me, it’s how farmers and others “call” their cows to the barn. It’s something that tends to be steeped in family tradition. In northeastern Pennsylvania, most farmers “called” their cows in, training their cows to respond to a key phrase signaling to them it is time to head in from the pastures.
In my family, it was a mash-up of the phrase “Come Bossy” followed by a whoop. Other farms had variations on the call. It was effective, as I could stand at the pasture gate and call out to the fields up at the base of the mountain and the cows would start their way for the pasture lane.
When I milked with Matt for the first time, instead of a call, his family whistled, which is something I have found to be common in Lancaster County. I don’t know if it’s because of the greater use of freestalls or the fact that at most farms, the pastures are in close proximity to the barn or if it’s just the local tradition.
However, like calls, there is more than one way to whistle. Matt’s whistle is a straight intonation, sticking close to the same note. However, I have been to other farms where the whistles are more melodic and if several are whistling as they work the cows, it’s almost a whistle symphony.
If you ever ask why they do what they do, most don’t have an official reason, except that’s how their father, grandfather or other family member worked with the cows. I like to think it’s an art form distinctive to each farm’s family tradition.
However, no matter how you whistle or call, it’s always interesting to see cows respond. It’s enough to get many of them to stretch and get up from their stalls in the barn or head to the gate in a pasture.
A well-trained herd will quickly respond and for the most part take little coaxing to be headed in the desired direction. Of course, there are the few random strays that usually need to be collected.
So the next time you are at a farm before milking time, stop and listen, you might hear a musical tradition.--- Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade, special sections editor