April 1st……..“WHEN YOU LIVED ON YOUR FARM, DID YOUR COWS STAY IN THE BARN ALL THE TIME? IF NOT, WHERE COULD THEY GO AND HOW DID YOU GATHER THEM BACK TO YOUR BARN”?
The intense scarlet of his epaulets flashed in the late afternoon Minnesota sunlight as a handsome Red-Winged Blackbird stretched out his “feet” to make a landing on the barbed wire fence alongside me. My handsome feathered friend looked like a little soldier from the sky with his epaulets of rank on his shoulders. It was as if the good Lord, Himself, had sent this hardy harbinger of good and protection to this young farm boy as I, in my bibbed overalls, enjoyed a late afternoon stroll to call in our herd of Holsteins from their daytime grazing pasture. My travel path was our low-lying cow-lane which paralleled below the upper grade of the gravel road running north and south along our farmlands there northwest of Kiester, Minnesota.
Red-Winged Blackbirds were known to be bold and courageous in their command and protection of their aerie domain. They’ve even been known to attack eagles in defense of their nesting area. Even the song “Mr. Red” sang to me that day had an authoritative musicality as his throat cried out “Conk-Lah-Ree, Conk-Lah-Ree”!!! Many other feathered friends also flew close to serenade me that afternoon as I traversed to the end of our cow-lane and to the gated opening of our expansive pasture land. Soon, to my little boy ears, there came the glorious warble of a golden, majestic Western Meadowlark who proudly wore his own black chevron on his glorious bright yellow chest.
These, and other friends of the sky, made it a much more pleasant task for me to carry out my daily chore of “kulning” our herd of Holstein cows back to the barnyard and into our family barn for milking. Once milked and fed, our farmer father, Russell, kept the herd safely overnight in the barn and, after the morning milking, would release each cow from their vertical stanchions and allow them, weather permitting, to saunter back out to munch a bunch of grass from the lush pasture land that bordered Brush Creek at the south end of our property. Do you question the word “kulning” that I used earlier? I’ll share more of its origins.
In my farm boy years of the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s, my generation was taught that this daily chore was merely entitled, “Calling The Cows”. Dad showed me how to cup my hands around my mouth to make like a trumpet’s flared horn bell, of sorts. I was then to yell out, in a high to low, melodic fashion, “COME BOSS!!! COME BOSS”!! With many repetitions of my call, eventually, the elder bovines of our herd would hear and acknowledge my calling by starting to come towards me and then make their way up the cow-lane towards what we called “The Cowyard” next to our barn. The young “moo-mates” came to learn that to be obedient to my human calling meant that they too would receive food, water and warmth that awaited them in our barn if they followed their elder “moo-mistress” leading.
It is a very good probability that my maternal Great Great Grandmother Beret Sletten (1814 – 1905), who was born in Norway, likely called her family cows and goats by the musical art of kulning. It was tradition, in those times, for women to use their high-pitched voices to sing the animals in to their farm from the Norwegian hillsides of Aurdal, Norway. Both bovines and goats were given bells to wear around their necks as an audio locating device as they meandered in their grazing up on the meadows and hillsides of our ancestral countryside. Each farm family created their own special song to sing (or kuln) to the animals. Even if their animals had mingled with another local herd, they only responded to the lilting song sung by their specific human mistress owner. There were even occasions when the animal’s names were incorporated into the kulning to make the call, or song, even more attracting to their own herd members.
Bovines have been known to respond well to the human singing voice. Research has shown that even the singing of birds nearby causes them to relax and produce oxytocin which results in higher milk production. For you see, birds only sing when there are no harmful predators nearby. The cows sense this in the birds happy songs and therefore will relax and are then in a more pleasant state of contentedness which produces more milk.
I can never tell the Lord thank you enough for allowing me the blessings of living on our Minnesota farm for those first 13 years of life. And, as years have passed, it’s been a joy to learn more of our family heritage and the very likely way they called in their herds for milking. Such were the stalwart predecessors of this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.