Gadabout, TMI

A. V. Walters

I spend more time than most, watching cows. The view out my back window looks out over the valley–which is peppered with cows. My front window looks across the land to the  dairy paddock, next-door,  for birthing cows. It’s essentially a cow delivery room. So, I see a lot of cows.

Still, I don’t quite get cows. It may not look like it, but they’re always doing something–ambling along with a lumbering gait in some kind of quasi, synchronized cow ballet. When I first arrived I noticed that the cows all faced one direction in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I watched for several weeks until I’d confirmed that, in fact, cows (like most of us) don’t much like the sun in their eyes. (It was news to Elmer, too. He’d never noticed, being a chicken farmer, and all.)

Often cows at rest, without any apparent provocation, will suddenly all head off together as though something’s up. Maybe there’s a feed truck, or not. Sometimes the cows will just get it in their heads that right now is the time for all of them to move, suddenly (though lumberingly), en masse, to the other side of the pasture, where they’ll proceed to do–absolutely nothing. It defies comprehension.

One day I noticed that a single cow at rest, would suddenly kick-up and bolt across the pasture. It happened over and over. This was new. I asked Elmer about it. He shrugged, “Maybe it’s heel fly season.”

“Heel flies?”

“Yup. They bite and lay eggs, right here,” he pointed down, to his ankle.

“Yeah, and then…?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t run cattle. But I know it’s not good for them, makes them cough. You watch’em, when they lay down and tuck their feet under, they’re protecting their feet. It’s not too bad here, real bad in the central valley.”

Of course, I had to look it up. Sure enough, there are heel flies. (Not that cows have much in the way of heels, mind you.) They’re also known as cattle grubs or warble flies. The story is, the eggs hatch and the larvae migrate through the body, feeding off the cow. Usually they mature in the chest cavity–making the cows cough. The parasite interferes with respiration and, in dairy cows, cuts down on milk production. With beef cattle (we have both around here) they fail to gain weight and, when the larva matures, it eats it’s way out, between the cows shoulders, ruining the hide. And I’m sure the cows aren’t too crazy about it, either.

This little, agricultural-science education was more gross than I was ready for. But wait, there’s more…

The term gadabout? It comes from gad, or gadding, which is “to be on the go, without a specific aim or purpose.” It describes the behavior of cattle taking evasive maneuvers from the damn heel flies. So a gadabout is a person who flits about socially. And a gadfly is either “any of various flies that bite or annoy livestock,” or, “a person who stimulates or annoys, especially by persistent criticism.”

And all that comes from the desperate sprints of righteously annoyed cows. More than you wanted to know, eh? Sometimes, that’s life on the farm. Makes ya kinda wanna settle in with your feet tucked underneath you…