The Name Game

Because a cow must give birth to a calf in order to give milk, every year that you milk 40 cows, you end up with 40 calves. That’s a lot. Some dairies keep track of their calves with numbered ear tags - a practical, if somewhat soulless system. “Hey! Number 7703! Stop chewing on that!”, or “Yup, that ol’ Number 946, boy, she’s my favorite cow.” Tough to really build an emotional connection. Now, I want you to understand, we don’t want to build too strong of an emotional connection - they are cows after all, and they are capable of pooping down the back of your neck. But when you work with them every day, you really want to be able to call them something other that #2649, if only because when they do poop down your neck, hollering out a number is not very cathartic. So we are committed to giving our cows real, if occasionally ridiculous, names.

When our first calves arrived in spring of 2006, we named all the heifer calves with names beginning with the same letter. Our first year we had Sylvie, Selina, Sophie, Simone, Sabine, Segolene, Six, and Sept. The following year was “T” - Therese, Thea, Tatienne, Tomme, and Thalie. Year three - Udaberri, Uma, Umika, Ukelele, Unagi. This seemed like a brilliant system, until Paul realized that he was standing out in the pasture yelling “Hey! Cut it out! You! - Sylvie! - uh, I mean, Selina! er, Sophie, Simone - WHOEVER YOU ARE CUT IT OUT! And then, whoever it actually was, not hearing her specific name, would continue to do whatever infuriating and probably destructive thing she was already doing. Not effective. 

Since it was apparent that our brains could not handle the same-letter system, Take 2 involved a switch to themes. In this system, the calf is named after the theme that the mother’s name represents. Brownie is the mother to Chocolate Chip. Each calf, when she grows up and has her own calves, then starts a slight variation on the theme that is her very own. Here’s an example: Flossie was the matriarch of the Dental Products family. Her first daughter was Toothpick. (Are you following this?) Toothpick’s daughter was Toothfairy. Toothfairy’s first calf was Peter Pan. This system has worked nearly flawlessly for us - we can easily identify which family line any cow comes from, and with only a little thought, quickly remember who her mother is. It doesn’t work so well for figuring out what year the cow was born, but that’s what computer records are for.

Here’s another example. Nina, who we discussed recently as a new nurse cow, has a daughter named Pinta. Her next heifer calf will probably be named Santa Maria. (OK purists, yes, her name should be Niña, but really, cows just don’t care about tildes and stuff like that…) Pinta’s first calf, born just a few weeks ago, is Ysabel, for Queen Isabella of Castile. (OK purists, how about that Old Spanish “Y”? Feeling cool and geeky about that one…)

Sometimes the naming is easy: Cream Puff is the daughter of Crumpet, who is the daughter of Tea (pronounced Taya, but just work with us on this one.) Candy is the mother of Salted Caramel and Kit-kat. Applesauce and Pippin both come from Appleskin. But sometimes the naming is more challenging, and then you start to see the contorted depths of our brains. Really, the truth of the matter is having a bunch of English and literature majors turned dairy farmers hanging around the calf pen is just plain dangerous. Take Sophie, who was named for Sophonisba Breckinridge, a social scientist, educator, welfare activist in the late 1800s. When Paul first heard her name, he heard it as Sophanciba Breckenridge, and as Robert Frost noted, that has made all the difference. Sophie’s first calf was Sophalena Sophanciba, known now as Lena. Lena is gigantic and not very bright. Her second calf was Sophanciba Sophalena, known as Ciba. Ciba is tiny, and maybe would benefit from a smaller pool of ideas. Definitely an activist and social reformer. Lena's calves are The Mona Lena and Deena. Ciba’s calf is Zebra. No, we have not yet looked into getting help for this problem.

And of course, we have had a few spin-outs. Mandolin gave birth to Lyra, who in turn gave birth to Eurydice. But that didn’t stick, and she’s now known as Badger, for no reason that any of us can fathom. Pesa, who is really The Principesa Maria, is the mother to calves bearing names of matriarchs of Paul’s Italian family. (Maria is Paul’s grandmother) However, when Pesa’s third calf was born, she was such an outstanding nurser and quick learner that someone started calling her Champ, and the name went official. But of course, this set the stage for further derivations from protocol, and now Champ has two lines of calf names in her offspring - the Champ-as-a-shortened-version-of-Champignon line - exemplified by Chanterelle; and the Champ-as-Champion line, headed up by this year’s prodigy Serena Williams. Who ironically, is extremely white.

All in all, this system has worked remarkably well. We get to say names like Annette Butterworth and Giant Baby on a daily basis. We exercise brain cells that have been slowly going dormant since college. We gleefully entertain ourselves by naming bull calves Root Canal and Bass-O-Matic. And in the process, we exorcise the temptation to name children and dogs names we know we will come to regret. It’s all good. But if anyone has an idea of where we should go when Herfie finally has a heifer calf, we’d love to hear about it.