The Duke of Devonshire

As I write I can hear cats in the upstairs guest bedroom; we have five living indoors. Mr. Darcy, Joanna’s Keeshond, has ensconced himself by the backdoor, keeping cold drafts from sneaking into the kitchen. If I tell you that these are Joanna’s animals, as are the ewes, layers, and geese, you may well ask if I have any animals. The answer is yes, I’ve currently got two, Woodruff and Siegfried, our rams. Males of the species have always been my responsibility and as such I’ve always been the one to look after the rams, bucks, boars, roosters, toms, ganders, and bulls. Joanna understands the necessity of having males of the species but has never liked them very much. [She does make exceptions for dogs and cats, however.] She says … they look at me funny. My favorite charge (no pun intended, read on) will always be Highland Hollow Duke of Devonshire, our American Milking Devon herd sire. He had just been weaned when I picked him up in New York and back then he fit, with room to spare, into one of the wooden crates we used to haul hogs in the back of the truck. Duke spent five years with us and he and I had come to an understanding very early on, he stayed put and I pastured the cows within sight; he never dropped his head (a sure sign that a bull is going to take a run at you) and I never turned mine when I was on pasture with him, he was massive by all accounts. We grained the cattle occasionally during winter, just before freshening, and sometimes as a reward when training to chain. We chained whenever we would have to get hold of one or another animal and this required that they all sported stout neck chains. We put a light lanyard around Duke’s neck when he was very young; he eventually graduated to a light chain, and then a heavy chain, and then a very heavy chain. I should have been entitled to hazard pay each time I had to switch out a chain, for when one got too small it would either have to be adjusted or exchanged for a larger one. To do this I would call Duke to the tie-down where I had put a bit of grain. He would amble over, eye me with just a bit of suspicion, and begin to eat. I had never measured the girth of his neck so simply purchased a length too long for the purpose which could be cut down to size. I began by feeding the chain over and around his neck. To dangle the chain down the far side of this neck and far flank I had to lean in close enough to his very large horns such that the near one would brush my cheek. Once the chain had cleared the far side and dangled to the ground I would crouch down, below his chin, to grab the chain and bring it on around. As I did so I would always have one of those out-of-body-experiences in which I watched myself, from a safe distance of about 20 or 30 feet, trying to adorn this massive and very powerful beast with a length of 3/8″ steel chain.  I would think … what an idiot you are … when Joanna finds out what you’ve done she’s gonna kill you if the bull doesn’t. Somehow I always managed. On more than one occasion I would back away and congratulate myself only to discover that I had forgotten to slip the two ID tags onto the chain before I clipped the thing closed. I do not protest, for Duke was a wonderful animal and as gentle as mature bulls may be expected to be. I enjoyed my twice-daily visits with him and still take great pride and warm pleasure in having had the opportunity to get to know and to care for such a wonderful creature. Like all breeding animals however Duke had, after a very few years, become a genetic liability. He was the father of more than half of our heifers so we purchased a young bull from Vermont as his replacement. We were lucky to find a place in New York that needed a fine Devon bull of its own. One day in the fall of 2011 Duke, like the gentleman he had always been, quietly and without fuss boarded a trailer which would take him north to his new home. Joanna has always said that everyone should have the opportunity to raise an animal and to get to know an animal well. She says that the experience has much to teach all of us about work, responsibility, compassion, and … yes, even love. She is right.

As an end to this post I’ve got to tell you my favorite bull story. Once, when teaching in the Hoosier state of Indiana, I was driving a group of students on a field trip to a nearby nature preserve. As we traveled the quiet country roads we passed by many farms. One, in particular, had a paddock right by the road and in that paddock was a single, mature, bull. Please don’t ask how I knew that this particular specimen was a bull, simply use your imagination and you will likely come up with one or two items which more than hinted at the gender of the animal. Everyone in the van was duly impressed, and for very good reason, this was a massive specimen and in very good condition. Although most of my charges had grown up on farms, some were from the nearby big cities of South Bend, Kokomo, and Fort Wayne. One young man from Indianapolis was particularly impressed and commented, Boy, I wouldn’t want to have to milk that cow.

SirDuke

Postscript: Imagine my surprise and delight when, one day while surfing around at YouTube, I found this video entitled Duke Visits Longacre. You could have pushed me over with a feather. There was Duke, Highland Hollow Duke of Devonshire, doing what he has always done best! Long live the Duke!

21 thoughts on “The Duke of Devonshire

  1. I wanted to let you know that I will be parting ways with Duke soon. He has been a wonderful bull, but as his heifers are becoming breeding age it is time for him to move on. Again, I cannot say enough how great a job you did raising this magnificent animal. In the 2 years since I last posted here, I have truly come to appreciate how special he truly is. Here is a link to a post on our farm’s Facebook page about Duke.

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=856716237833460&id=474518146053273

  2. I can tell you Duke is one of the nicest AMD bulls ever. He has a wonderful disposition as bulls go, and throws beautiful calves. The only bull I have seen with a better disposition was Leahey Farm’s Jack. One of Jack’s heifers just calved a nice bull of which Duke is the Sire. I have owned Duke for a little over a year now. So long as you let him run with the girls, he is as sweet as cotton candy. During the time we keep him separate he constantly keeps an eye on the herd. You did a fantastic job raising him to be a real gentleman.

    • What a wonderful thing you have done for both of us. We are so very pleased to know that Duke is still around, healthy, and doing his thing. Perhaps you will think it silly for me to observe that one can get attached to one’s animals, but it’s true. Duke really was a buddy. And I agree that he’s a wonderful animal. We picked him up while he was still on the bottle. And, you are right in your assessment of him. He’s wonderful with the cows and acts a bit like a bull when he’s isolated. Thanks again for letting us know how he’s doing. I can’t tell you how much your note meant to us.

    • Yes indeed, Bulls are tricky. Even when raised from the minute of their birth, bulls cannot EVER be trusted. Their hormones and their instincts dictate that this be so. Duke was as good and as trustworthy as a bull can be. I could walk in his pasture (not with my back to him however). I could feed and water him, and even provide a scratch under the chin from time-to-time. You need to realize however that if I were scratching him and he decided to turn his head … those big horns might have done damage. If he shifted his stance, he might have stepped on a foot. And, if he tried to get between me and the food … watch out! Most accidents with bulls are of this sort. But then, of course, there are the accidents which occur when heifers or cows are in heat, for example, and then all bets (on good behavior) are TOTALLY and ABSOLUTELY OFF. It’s as if the males become possessed! And, I suppose … in a way … they are. These animals were a pleasure to own and an honor to watch over. Truly a wonderful experience. Thanks for checking in and for noticing The Duke. D

      • Wow! Thank you for the extra info. I will continue to be terrified of them, for good reason.

        I’ve heard the same for foxes – they can’t be tamed. I saw a documentary where scientists paired placid foxes who were somewhat tolerant to humans to see if they could breed and tame the young ones. The young ones would not be tamed, no way. I’m not sure why they wanted tame foxes.

  3. And once again I almost missed an excellent post. Dave, in so many ways you are a lucky man – great family, great job, great farm etc. You’re also bloody lucky to have spent no time in the emergency ward! First the boots and now this. Changing over a chain on a TONNE of aggressive muscle, bone and testosterone is bad enough but to do it alone! You have to knock that off. I have become quite fond of this blog and I’d hate to have posts so rudely interrupted by you having an eight-week stint in intensive care 🙂 I did especially like the ending to this one. Coincidences like that are truly one of life’s great pleasures.

    • Hmmm. Joanna is always quite upset when she discovers I’ve done something dumb. In all seriousness, even cows can be dangerous, if not deadly. A very good friend of mine was ‘rolled’ by a cow on pasture as he approached her and her newborn. He was so badly beat up that he needed to be air-lifted to a distant trauma center. I’m not sure I can get off this proverbial hook by saying that my risks are calculated and that I know my animals … because we both know that the ‘calculations’ of which I speak are statistical ones and that although the probability of getting gored by an enraged bull is way, way out there in the left tail of the distribution … the probability is very low) but, at the same time, very real. Guilty as charged. It’s always one of those things where I find myself saying, “Just one more inch, just one more link, just one more … ahh … got it.” And, it’s done. It’s always afterward that I think of how stupid I had been. Anyway … we don’t have bulls here on the farm anymore so, no worries. I guess this means I shouldn’t blog about the time I ………. D

    • Thanks Shimon. Raising animals, as we have for nearly a quarter century, has taught us many lessons and has, in many important ways, made us who we are. Thanks for your observation. D

  4. Fabulous and touching story. I got a lump in my throat when picturing you shipping your friend to his new home. You are either more than slightly crazy or brave and fearless. You decide.

  5. It’s nice to hear our ‘proteges’ are doing well. Duke really is handsome. I think I want that image on coffee cup … with a caption about wanting the coffee now. I like how his back echos the ridgeline above. Hugs to you and Joanna 🙂

  6. I always kept a safe distance from the bull in our pasture on our farm in Massachusetts. As it is, I don’t love dealing with the rams I keep, occasionally. They are just so strong and I really respect that. I’m with Joanna on this. But I like your story about Duke and chaining him very much. I can just feel that tension and then reward of having completed a hard task. And Duke was lucky to have such good care. It helped shape him into being such a fine bull. When we take care of our animals properly, they reward us.

    • Yup. Livestock husbandry has its challenges and its inherent dangerous … knowing about and being able to anticipate the latter goes a long way to being safe. Those little shetland rams can do lots of damage so you be careful. Never, ever, take your eyes off the guys when in their pasture (I know you know not to). I’ve never had a ram run at me but I’ve had them take those few steps back to prepare to do so. Whenever they do I yell at them … ‘Don’t you dare.’ They must understand because they always stand down. D

  7. What great story! I always feel a bit uneasy when “meeting” a herd of cows (incl. bulls) while hiking. How dangerous are they really? Sometimes signs also warn not to advance cows feeding their offspring. I remember a tragic story of a former Austrian manager in IT who turned his back on IT to become a farmer (nearly cliché but true this time). After some years he was eventually killed by one of his bulls. So what is the risk really?

    • The risk is genuine Elke. BOTH bulls AND COWS (especially if they are with their newborns) should be considered dangerous. I had a friend, a dairy farmer, who was nearly killed by a cow … with her newborn. Bulls can do damage even when they don’t mean to … just a brush with a horn … as I’m sure you can imagine. I’ve known folks who have had their feet broken by being stepped on … and others who have had ribs broken when squeezed between a wall and a rushing bovine. I know they look happy and docile out there in the field, but I truly believe that unless the herd belongs to you and you know the personalities of the individual animals … YOU SHOULD STAY AWAY. Bad things can happen in the blink of an eye … take if from me! D

  8. I am on Bruce’s computer and having trouble posting my comment. This is my 3rd try! Just watched the U-Tube video of The Duke. What a coincidence! He sure is a mighty beast! Lucky you were never injured while caring for him. He could probably sense that you were one of the good guys! Had to chuckle at Joanna’s comment about the male animals looking at her funny! We are in NJ this weekend for Marcie’s youngest son’s BM. S/J/J are here too. Celia comes tomorrow with Alan from NY. Ben is busy with the Heathers premiere this weekend. We will travel there next weekend to see the show. Someone might think we were frequent travelers!

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