Ronnie Ray: Old-fashioned identification had its perks

By Ronnie RayJuly 16, 2014 

In the 1950s, when a dairy was more a way of life than a business, we had a different relationship with our cows. We knew them all by their characteristics. Those characteristics were identifiable and obvious to people who worked with them on a daily basis. The cows were given names. In fact, all registered cattle are still given a name and a registration number. As dairies got bigger and herds grew, identification of individual cows became necessary. The first ID system consisted of number tags on chains. Number tags on chains, which hung around the neck. The first tags were made of metal. A few years later, plastic became more prevalent. Soon after, an ear tagging system was developed.

My father resisted these modern identification methods for reasons that he believed to be of utmost importance. First, he could identify a cow from 500 yards by her color markings. He would say, “While you are walking a quarter mile to get close enough to read the ear tag, I can be doing something worthwhile. I know who she is from here!” Second, he thought that those tags in the ears made them look tacky, like a sale yard animal. “Any cow worth having deserves a name and a little respect.” We could argue his logic, but we could never win the debate. He had the final word. So every cow on our dairy had a proper name.

How do you come up with names for 100 cows and remember the names? Dad made it quite easy. First you look for a characteristic that gives reason for a name and the process is underway. Sally had big black eyes that reminded us of a neighbor lady. Goldie had a hair color that shined golden in the sun. Lucy was red. Coalie was coal black, Brownie was brown.

Then there were those that got their names for other reasons. To leave the milk barn was a quick easy process for the cows. They should back up a few steps, turn to the right and go out the door. We had a big black cow that for some unknown reason could not turn to the right. She always turned to the left. She backed up, then turned to the left, making a three quarter circle to the left to get lined up with the door before making her exit. Her name was Lefty. The cow taught me something: Three left turns make a right!

We even had a cow named Gordon. This one had a strange connection to the name. A cow that kicks is often referred to having a “light foot.” When this cow entered the barn for her first time, she kicked like a mule. She had a light foot. We already had a cow we called Lightfoot, so this one had to be Gordon. After all, Gordon Lightfoot was singing on the radio that day. Add to this group the five cows that Dad bought from Aubrey Paul. Aubrey had a small dairy on Avenue 18. At one time he was an officer for the Chowchilla Police Deptartment. The cows were named Audrie and Paula. Aubrey had three daughters; Ardith, Charlene and Zoetta, so the other three cows were Ardie, Charlie and Zoey.

Cows have spots that look like different things. Mickey had spots that looked like Mickey Mouse ears on her side. Seven had a white seven on her head. Red Dot had a red dot on her head. Star had a white star on her head, and Punkin was sort of orange. See how easy this is. We have already named more than a dozen cows.

There was one oddity in this naming process that I can not explain. We did not have a lot of bulls on the dairy, but they were all named Ferdinand. There was Ferdinand, Ferdinand Jr. and Ferdinand the 3rd.

Ronnie Ray is a third-generation dairyman and has lived in the Dairyland area for more than 60 years.

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