5 Nov 2017

Rosamund Young: for the love of cows

From Sunday Morning, 10:10 am on 5 November 2017

Last month, seven farms in South Canterbury had to cull around 4,000 cows because of the mycoplasma bovis infection.

While that was financially tough for the farmers concerned, it was also tough emotionally.

The cows were more than just anonymous stock to the farmers, who knew many by their individual names and numbers, Waimate mayor Craig Rowley said at the time.

Cows are far smarter and more emotionally connected to each another than we give them credit for, says UK farmer Rosamund Young.


Photo: Supplied

Nearly 15 years ago, Young wrote a small book called The Secret Life of Cows about treating cows and other animals with kindness and empathy.

It was a friend who encouraged her to write down her cattle tales.

"I'm more of a ghostwriter for the cows, I just wanted to accumulate a collection of anecdotes."

The book became a huge success, translated into 19 languages and recently reprinted by Faber.

Now, Young lives and farms at Kite's Nest Farm in Worcestershire.

She started to farm organically back in the 1970s more by accident than design.

"We were probably farming organically before we knew what the word meant. Even now in England, people don't know what it is, but it's just an instinct to do things as naturally as you can and a with as few chemicals as we can get away with."

She runs the dairy part of the operation on a single suckle system – in other words, the calf and mother aren't separated at birth.

Rosamund Young is fond of sheep as well as cows.

Rosamund Young is fond of sheep as well as cows. Photo: Supplied

"We wanted to change to a system where each cow reared their own calf just as animals do in the wild.

"Now all our cows, if they have a calf they rear them for nine months or until the next calf is born and they stay together in family units and it seems a much less stressful, and a much more natural system."

Young has spent years observing the behaviour of cows and believes, even if science can't prove it, certain things are manifestly true. The mother-daughter relationship, for example.

"If I see a mother and daughter spending a huge amount of time together, just before that daughter gives birth for the first time I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that they're discussing the impending birth!

"Over the years I see it time and time and time again that a pregnant daughter goes back to seek out her mother's company. In human terms, I assume they're getting some sort of comfort even if not actual advice."

Just like humans, cows vary in character and intelligence, she says.

"Some people are highly intelligent, some are very stupid and some in-between, and you get that range in cattle and in sheep and in hens and every other animal I've ever come across."

Although Young is at times very attached to her animals, she still feels meat is an important part of the human diet and livestock part of the farming cycle.

"If we could slaughter them on the farm so they didn't have any journey at all to an abattoir that would be much, much better, but at the moment the legislation of the country doesn't allow that.

"Over the last 10 or 15 years at least 800 abattoirs have closed and they're all the small ones so animals, on the whole, are travelling further."

The final slaughter of her cows is the one aspect of farming Young doesn't enjoy.

"I have such sympathy with vegetarians and such sympathy with vegans because I love my animals and I wish I didn't have to kill them.

"But if I didn't kill them, I wouldn't be able to afford to keep them so I would never have had the pleasure of knowing them in the first place. Only if I was a multi-millionaire could I keep a few cattle as pets."