18. Bulling (nymphomania)
A cow in season is referred to as oestrous; in Brabant they call it toy-ish ('spullig'). She demonstrates her desire to copulate by means of passionately mooing or howling. If the period in which she is oestrous is too long or if the cow is in heat too often, then she is referred to as bulling. This pathologically raised or even permanently present sexual drive is officially called nymphomania.
The sexual cycle of a cow normally lasts three weeks. During that time, she is oestrous and willing to copulate on one or two days after a follicle has developed in one of the ovaries and produces oestrogenic hormones. The production of these hormones stops once the follicle breaks open (the ovulation). If the cow is not covered by a bull or artificially inseminated, then a follicle will start to develop again two weeks later. Around day 20, the cow becomes oestrous again. And so the ovaries control her sexual cycle.
But the ovaries are also controlled. There is a small lobe at the stem of the brain (hypophysis) that produces hormones that reach the ovaries through the blood. One of these hormones stimulates the development of a follicle, another induces the ovulation. In producing these hormones, the hypophysis responds to all kinds of stimuli from the brain: to what an animal sees, smells or hears from a partner, and to light. Follicles can develop in the ovaries of cattle that are kept in a dark barn, but the hypophysis does sometimes not produce enough hormone to have these actually burst open. In such cases, the production of oestrogenic hormone keeps going and going and the cow will remain oestrous and will continue to howl for weeks: she is then 'bulling'. If such an animal is covered or inseminated, then she will not become in calf as no egg-cell has been released.
It is winter and time to milk. The cooling unit of the milk tank is operating at full speed and generating a lot of noise in order to cool the body-warm milk from the cows down to four degrees Celsius as quickly as possible. And so I can hear where I can find the farmer when I get out of my car. There are fourteen cows in the milking parlour: seven on each side, sideways with their heads to the wall and with their rears towards the milk pit in the middle of the parlour. The farmer is in the milk pit standing at eye level with the udders. A pulsating vacuum system provides suction to keep the cups of the fourteen milk claws in place over the teats. This mimics a calf sucking on a teat. The milk flows from the milk claws into the glass
containers at the edge of the milk pit. There is a separate container for each cow. This enables the farmer to see when she has been milked empty and how much milk she has produced.
the milk pit; on the edges are the milk containers
“Good evening!” Two cows give me a questioning look. The farmer, however, continues with cleaning the udders and connecting the teat cups to the teats. I have to overcome this noise level and so I holler my greeting again. He looks up from his work: “Ah, the vet! We have to go see the yearlings in the old shed. I’ll join you in a minute when these cows are done.” A few minutes later, the fourteen udders are empty. Standing in the milk pit, the farmer pulls a rope to open the sliding doors and the cows leave the milking parlour, back to the open loose barn. The animals that are still to be milked are crowding around the entrance. Their udders are taut. The milk of a few is already streaming down.
The old shed
A small old shed stands next to the modern open loose barn. It is pitch black inside. This scarcely changes when the farmer flicks on the light. A small bulb covered in dust is dangling in a fitting by two small wires protruding from the ceiling. Thriftiness is definitely a very developed virtue in farmers. A dim circle of light shines on the back of an animal. Once my eyes become accustomed to the dark, I see six large yearlings tied up in a row. They appear to be about two years old, perhaps even more. And so they should have already calved by now.
the old shed in daylight
“They have been inseminated often enough. And they are all in calf, except this one; this one is bulling. I am fattening her up for myself. But her howling is dreadful. Mother is fed up with it.”
I carefully struggle between the animals to the back. I have a long plastic glove and a bottle of lubricant in the pocket of my dustcoat. Through the wall of the intestines, I feel a large vesicle (cyst) on one of the ovaries, almost as large as a tennis ball and with a thick wall. I grab the cyst through the intestinal wall and squeeze until it bursts. This takes a surprising amount of effort. The production of oestrogenic hormone stops now that the cyst has burst and the animal calms down within a few days. The ovary that remains is no bigger than a hazelnut. In order to have the next sexual cycle proceed normally and to prevent a cyst from developing again, I inject the yearling with a hormone that stimulates the hypophysis. I have brought along a syringe and a small bottle of the hormone in my pocket. “Grab them by the nose for a moment.” Pinching the inter-nasal septum in cows has the effect of a light anaesthetic. It is similar to the effect of a twitch on the upper lip of a horse or acupuncture in humans: endorphin is released in the brain, causing a brief flush. I inject the hormone fluid.
It is dark in the old shed during the daytime as well. That has not been beneficial to the fertility of the yearlings. Still, I keep my thoughts regarding the housing and lighting to myself. It so happens the farmer’s only son has hinted that he sees no future for himself on the farm. He did not go to the HAS (Higher Agricultural School), but rather he became an chemical analyst. The laboratory offers him a working week of thirty-six hours and five weeks’ holiday per year. This is a luxury that is unknown to a farmer’s life: his working week counts seven days, and cows are milked and fed twice a day. Moreover, cows and heifers calve half the time during the night. And so working weeks of ninety to one hundred hours are not exceptional; and these hours still increase considerably in the spring. Cattle breeders take one week holiday per year at most. Many older farmers have never left their farm ever. That is to say: never for more than one day. As he has no successor, this farmer is not inclined to continue to invest in his farm and so no new barn was built for young cattle. Most of the yearlings are being kept in the former pig house and a few in this old shed. The calves have been divided between the lean-to of the old farmhouse near the street and the former chicken coop. These circumstances are far from ideal and also quite labour-intensive. But the cows will soon be sold and the open loose barn will be used to store caravans. The farmer does intend to keep only a few youngsters for himself. If you have tended to your farm day and night your entire life, you cannot simply sit indoors at sixty and do nothing: ‘Mother would be soon fed up with it.’
© Leo Rogier Verberne