Red, a nine-year-old Highlander steer, had sores on his face. What was the cause?

Topper, the black Highlander steer, was standing at the gate to the steers' field, wanting in. He waited patiently until I noticed him and let him join his five friends. For a while, he had lived in "the girls' field" — with the calves and pregnant cows, lured there by the charms of a heifer named Shannon. Steers can be sexier than you'd expect.

Shannon, an escape artist whose skills rivaled Houdini, had been relegated to a secure paddock and was out of Topper's reach.

Topper must have missed the guys' companionship because, for two days, he stood at the fence, watching his buddies, willing himself back with them. Eventually, he escaped the girls' field, and that's when I found him standing at the gate.

Like people, cattle have friends; peers we can butt heads with, and no one is hurt. I'm not suggesting that humans like to smash our heads together, but you've seen teenage boys horsing around — same thing. Head-butting is one way that cattle interact. A bull will do it to bully another bull. But among friends, it is playful banter; conversation. "How's it going? You look sad. Here's a head butt for you!" Topper must have missed jousting with boys who understood him and jousted back.

Another form of cattle-communication is licking. Their tongues are like coarse sandpaper. They have to be rough so they can gather up slippery grass and hold it while biting. Cattle don't have bottom-front teeth, so a robust and scratchy tongue helps them eat. Those tongues are also useful grooming tools for themselves and other cattle.

Newborn calves are licked clean by their mothers. It's how cows reassure their babies and bond with them. Cattle lick each other and also like to be brushed, which is the human equivalent of licking. Even the wildest cow will relax if a human can get close enough to brush her. Mostly it's positive, but cattle licking can cause problems.

Red, a 9-year-old Highlander, was afflicted. The skin under his horns and on his face was raw and bleeding, cause unknown. The vet checked out the mysterious sores and prescribed medicine to be sprayed on his wounds twice a day. During one of these treatments, another steer, Finn, walked up and licked Red's face. I saw that Finn's sandpaper tongue, however well-meaning, was the source of Red's damage. Later I noticed Finn licking the hard-to-reach back legs of Cooper, another steer. Finn was the self-appointed groomer for "the boys."

Was this companionship what Topper had been missing? Did he want to be back with a head-butting, face-licking crew that knows what he wants without asking? Is this male bonding, bovine style?

Topper seems content to be back loitering in the pasture with his buddies, like boys on a street corner. But that might change if another heifer catches his eye.


Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (, where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs, and other local products.

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