Cows remember where they were fed for the winter before. Most of them are home or will soon be home from the range.
The phrase “til the cows come home” means a long time, in this case months, unless it is a milk cow which needs to be milked (and has no calf on her).
Bulls on the other hand can stay out a very long time and hunger and cold may bring them home. Periodically, they need to be fetched to make it by Christmas or New Years.
If fences don’t stop them, or neighbour’s pastures and hayfields look just too inviting, they will wander through various other herds, sort themselves and make their way to the fall and winter feed grounds.
They can be early or late coming in and I am not sure why.
I am pretty sure that if there is a good late summer or early fall rain, the regrowth is very palatable and keeps them out on the range.
And if there is a hard frost, which kills a lot of the feed (here is the wetter belt) or snowfall at the higher elevations, then they will be driven home.
If one’s marketing plan involves early sales then ranchers will try to hurry them home. But once a pattern is established, most cows will come home when they are used to coming.
I think those that stay out must be getting their nutritional requirements met or they would come looking for greener pastures, however, the daily gain on the calves might not be what it could be if they had high protein younger grass, say on a regrown hayfield.
Ranchers want large groups of calves similar in size to increase the value to buyers — less effort to get a cattle liner load. So the more that come home the better.
There are always a few stragglers that have to be sold later in the fall, or kept over winter and backgrounded (raised to be closer to market weight) for sale to the feedlots which finish cattle.
This phrase: “til the cows come home” really applies to the cows that are happy or are in the habit of staying out late on the range.
If you can find them, you might get them home, but otherwise you just wait.
Being creatures of habit, this may be a pattern.
You can cull them out of the herd, just as you can cull out “outliers” that stray from the herd and are susceptible to predation, or the ones that hang out among the waterways and don’t move back up into the uplands away from the riparian areas.
You can crank the car until the cows come home but it won’t start if there is no fuel in it.
This is the other usage of the phrase. More or better feed might just be the fuel that brings them home on their own.
David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.