The Parable of the Prodigal Cow

“Animal Farm” by George Orwell was all about politics, so we ought to be able to draw some political lessons from farm life, right?


I’m not nearly as clever as Orwell, but I did have a little experience a few weeks ago that reminded me how people are sometimes not all that different than cows. 

When I arrived at our little farm in the foothills of the Raft River Mountains in far northern Box Elder County, I wanted to check to see if the cows were all OK, including two new calves. I found them quickly in the trees along Clear Creek, but could only count 15, including the two babies, so one bigger cow was missing. The cows were in a paddock along the creek, so I hiked up the creek, but there are so many willows, trees and underbrush that it’s hard for one person to make a good search.

Later that day my brother, Gaylen, visited with his boys and grandchildren. After they fished and hunted for turkeys I recruited them to search for the missing cow. My wife, Jan, and I went on one side of the creek and Gaylen’s crew hiked up the other, checking all the possible hiding places. We didn’t find the cow, but when Gaylen’s group reached the top of the property they saw our neighbor to the south, whose place is a mile or so above ours, out with his son. They asked if he had seen a stray cow and he said a small tan-colored steer was hanging around their property, and they had just seen it in a stand of junipers above their house.

So we went up into the junipers, and there he was. We had seven or eight people, including the neighbor and his wife, so we opened a gate to our property and we got in a line to drive him through the gate. We were able to herd him for a ways, but he didn’t want to be herded and he bolted between two people and ran past the house, across a bridge and into another part of the neighbor’s property, still bordering our land. I opened another gate not far from where he was, and we got in another line to drive him through that gate. We got him right up to the gate, but he wouldn’t go through, and he again bolted between two herders and ran back into the junipers where we first found him.

It was apparent he was too fast and wild for us to herd. We chased him all over the place. We finally gave up and let him rest and cool down.

Later that evening I drove the 4-wheeler up the creek and opened the gate closest to the stand of junipers. I brought with me some grain with molasses in it, that cows love, in a rubber feeding pan. I quietly walked up to the junipers, and there he was, laying down chewing his cud. I shook the pan of grain and invited him to eat. He let me get within 15 feet before he jumped to his feet. He seemed intrigued by the grain so I set it down and backed away a few feet.  He walked gingerly to the grain, looking all around wondering where those other herders were. I let him take a few bites, then walked up and took the grain pan. He bolted back, but didn’t go far. So I led him for the next 45 minutes, sometimes only going 15 feet, putting down the grain pan and letting him have a bite, then taking the pan down the hill another little ways. I thought a couple of times he had lost interest, because he stopped and grazed, ignoring me and the pan. He wandered off a bit a couple of times. But I was able to talk to him and shake the grain pan and get his attention so he would follow me. Finally, when we were within a hundred yards of the gate, he just kept following me as I held out the grain pan without even putting it down. I led him right through the gate and put the pan down to give him a reward. I closed the gate as he enjoyed the grain. He knew where he was and he quickly trotted down the trail to find his family and friends.

So, there’s a tortured analogy in there somewhere if I can find it. The lesson is that sometimes people are like cows. They go astray and get a little wild. And when they feel they are being driven or forced, they rebel and head the opposite direction we want them to. But when we are kind, gentle, entreating, patient (and offer yummy treats), we can often bring them along. Setbacks and reversals will occur. But patience and love will eventually win out.

Use of force is not usually the best way to get cows or people to behave.