There are six chairs around our kitchen table. Each chair corresponds, roughly, with a portion of the table that is referred to by my children as a spot.
    As in, “That’s my spot! I was sitting there.”
    More often than not – despite my ongoing efforts to prevent and correct – part of the square footage of our table surface is covered in homework and/or mail. In this case, the chairs get pushed closer to the vacant end of the table and the geometry of each spot is reduced accordingly.
    Each night when we sit down for supper, my children race to see who gets which spot.
    Daphne covets the round spot on the rounded corner of our rectangular table. (We line three chairs up on each side of the table because there isn’t room in our kitchen for a chair at each end of the table.) If someone else takes Daphne’s spot, she wails, like any proper youngest child.
    Dan and Monika are usually indifferent to where they sit. But spot deliberations are often complicated by who wants to sit next to Mom or Dad that night.
    We were enjoying a Christmas visit with neighborhood friends when the topic of kitchen tables and chairs came up. Glen mentioned that when he was a kid, each member of his family had an assigned seat at the kitchen table.
    “You didn’t dare sit in someone else’s spot,” he said.
    I had one of those “For real?” moments, as if the concept was completely incomprehensible. In my childhood, we sat wherever there was an open seat.
    Composure regained, I immediately understood why. Assigned seats eliminated all of the “I wanted that spot” suppertime bickering.
    I then wondered, did other families have assigned seats at the table? Is this a generations-old tradition that has slowly faded?
    And, then, of course, my mind jumped to the parallels between assigning spots at the table and assigning stalls in the barn.
    When I was a kid, each cow had her own spot in the barn. Complete with her name written on a card above. Each time the herd came back in the barn, each cow knew where her stall was.
    One of the first decisions we made when we moved the cows to our farm was whether or not the cows would have assigned stalls. We reasoned that it would be more trouble than it was worth to train an entire herd all at once to find their stalls. Especially since Glen was still doing chores at the neighbors, and I was loading the barn by myself.
    And, so, a generations-old tradition faded away. We were talking about assigned stalls with the kids and their incredulous reactions mirrored mine at the mention of assigned table seats. “So you mean each cow went in the same stall every time?” they asked in wonder.
    I realized they’re missing out on an opportunity to observe how intelligent cows really are and how much they love routine.
    I still notice our cows’ tendencies. Even though our cows no longer have assigned stalls, many cows choose the same stall or, at least, the same section of the barn. We can often tell when a cow is in heat or isn’t feeling well because she’s out of place in the barn.
    Some cows prefer stalls in the front of the barn, while others choose the back. Some stand in south-facing stalls. Others choose north. I suspect this is because cows become accustomed to making either right or left turns.
    Or sequences of turns. Some cows always take a right out of the entryway and then a left into a stall. If they happen to get jostled or blocked and end up taking a left out of the entryway, they still take a left into a stall. So they tend to stand in kitty-corner sections of the barn.
    When we milked in a parlor, we noticed that some cows preferred the left side of the parlor, some preferred the right, and some really didn’t give a moo which side they entered.
    Milking in the parlor also confirmed my theory that cows can count. We milked in a double-4 parlor. Each spot in the parlor had a grain bowl, which allowed us to entice them into the parlor with a small amount of grain and top dress the cows that needed it. Each bowl had a hopper above that was operated with a rope and pulley system. The hopper in the last stall had a sensor on it, which detected when the hopper was empty and then turned on the auger to fill all the hoppers.
    It didn’t take long for one of our cows, Danka, to learn that if she was the fourth cow into the parlor on any given turn, she would be in the spot with the sensor-equipped hopper. She’d run the lever on the hopper, which emptied the grain into her bowl. She would repeat this until she heard the auger turn on, which would deliver more grain to her hopper. Voilá! Endless buffet in the parlor.
    After that, without fail, Danka would be the fourth cow into the parlor. Every single time. We quickly learned that we had to turn the feed system off when Danka came into the parlor.
    I always figured that cows used counting to find their stalls. As in, my spot is eight stalls down on the right. And, really, I’m OK with cows being able to count.
    I’m just glad they can’t talk. Seriously, can you imagine the arguing that would take place in a barn without assigned stalls?
    “That’s my spot!”
    “Hey, I wanted that stall.”
    “Get out. I’m just going to wedge myself into this stall with you until you move.”
    Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 100 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have three children – Dan, 11, Monika, 8, and Daphne, 5. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at sadiefrericks@gmail.com.