As summertime has rolled around, the church choir in which I sing has gone on hiatus until the fall. We usually practice once a week on a Wednesday evening for an hour, and I already find myself missing those sessions. I think of these practices as “music therapy,” because you can’t help but forget anything that might be troubling you while you concentrate on singing the correct notes and watching where you’re supposed to sing loudly or softly. You also have to pay attention to the rhythm, all while enjoying the resulting harmonies. I guess that would make the choir director our “therapist.” If we watch him closely, we won’t miss any of his cues and everything will come out right.
While I like to think that our choir’s selections add to the worship experience on a Sunday morning, recently Dennis and I were listening to a choir that made us wish we could reach for soundproof headsets to cover our ears. The members of this little chorus were all singing the same tune, but their only volume was “forte fortissimo” or “ff,” which, in a musical score, means “very loud.”
Although they made noise aplenty, since there were only four “performers” involved, I guess the proper term for them would be a quartet. I love barbershop and gospel quartet harmony, but this foursome could not be accused of being melodious. And furthermore, their favorite time to sing seemed to be at nighttime, when everyone else was trying in vain to sleep. In case you haven’t guessed by now, this quartet is made up of four members of our barnyard beef herd.
All of us, whether human or animal, have transitions to go through in life, and not all of them are pleasant transitions. In this case, I’m referring to the four “amigos” known as Cash, Kringle, Rex and Milo — all Hereford steers who had reached the age to be weaned. Through research, we have learned the preferred way of doing so is by using the process known as “fenceline weaning.” In the pasture, that means putting the calves and their mothers on opposite sides of a fence, where they can see each other and even make nose-to-nose contact, but nursing is not possible.
Our version of fenceline weaning generally takes place in the barnyard, before we put the herd out into pasture for the summer. The “weanees” are confined inside a stable all their own, with a see-through gate separating them from the rest of the herd, including their mothers. Even though this is a recommended method for weaning, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy time for the calves or their mothers.
It takes a little while for the calves to realize that, although this stable is their old “calf cave,” where only they could come and go at will without the taller cattle being able to enter, this time, they’re stuck inside. Things start getting noisy on both sides of the gate when the calves get hungry and their mothers’ udders get full. The resulting cacophony is anything but harmonious. It’s annoying to our ears, and also pity-provoking, but we know it’s a necessary transition that will benefit both the moms and their youngsters.
We also know from experience that, as time passes, the choral performances will gradually tone down. I guess you could call our cows the “back-up singers.” The moms make “music,” too, but they’ll be the first to stop their mooing. It’s likely that the cows’ memories kick in to remind them how enjoyable their newfound freedom from half-grown calves has proved to be in the past. They’ll still come to the gate and glance in at their offspring, but their “singing” has stopped.
The calves will continue their plaintive sounds, even as we ramp up the amount of hay and feed rations they receive to make up for the nutrition that had come from their mothers’ milk. Within a few days recently, the quartet went from full-throated performances to a hoarseness due to vocal cord overuse, which made them sound like a band of braying donkeys. This signaled the end of the weaning process, as both the cows and their calves settled into their respective new normals.
A few days after peace and quiet was restored, our buyer arrived with his cattle trailer to transport our quartet to his farm a few miles away, where they will join a group of other beef steers. They might make a few encore performances at their new home initially as they adjust to the setting, but thereafter, silence will become golden at that farm, as well as at ours. At this end, the calf-less cows and their bovine friends who still have young calves are looking forward to making their annual trip to the freedom of pasture life. By then, their choir, like mine, will be on hiatus throughout the warm weather months, too.
Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.