Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lookin' for Love

It only took an instant. The moment I gazed into those brown eyes…that was it…love at first sight…a love so deep and strong that it quite possibly changed the course of my life. I take that back, it DID change the course of my life!

Oh, wait…

                                     yeah, I know the Boss’ eyes are BLUE!

Let me explain. 
                      …and let me say right here…he is TOTALLY okay with this whole affair.

When I was a little girl, maybe five or six, I wandered into the dairy barn at the county fair.  There among all the dairy specimens was a small Jersey cow.  I don’t remember a thing about her except those eyes…those big, liquid, deep, dark chocolate eyes.  I was hooked.  I HAD to have a cow.  Time meant nothing.  Just sometime in my life I HAD to be the owner of a cow. I envisioned myself milking cows, herding cows, making butter, cheese and ice cream and whatever else one was supposed to do with cows.

Raised on a literary diet of “Little House” books, Mother Earth News and Countryside magazine, I thought this was a normal desire for a young girl.  I remember trying endlessly to convince my ever practical father of the necessity of a milk-cow. I tried to convince him that I could learn to milk the heifer he had gotten for a beef critter. Needless to say, I was unsuccessful.  The desire/obsession went on the back burner throughout school, college, and career.

Frosty - 1997
The Boss knew of my obsession.  As a matter of fact, he rather encouraged me.  By the time we moved to the Valley, he was in full agreement with my “cow thing”.  He had promised me a cow when we moved to the hill.  The Boss is a definitely man of his word, and he delivered the cow the first fall we were here.

I think I have chronicled my “mis-adventures” with Frosty to some extent.   She was beautiful, she gave lovely, creamy milk…but, she had ZERO personality.  Despite the fact that my ignorance nearly ended her life that first freshening, we went on to a semi-successful term with her. Breeding issues spelled the end of her career here on the hill. If a milk-cow won’t breed, eventually she won’t have any milk.

I really wanted a cow I could love who would love me back.  While that sounds really strange, you need to consider just how much time is spent with a milk-cow, especially a family milk-cow. When you milk a cow by hand, you spend a LOT of time hunkered down by the beast in all sorts of weather, milking…milking…milking twice a day.  It is a most intimate experience.  You have lots of time to think, squirt, pray, squirt, sing, squirt, swear, squirt, worry, squirt…the cycle begins again. There are THOUSANDS of squirts in a bucket of milk, and I have milked THOUSANDS of buckets.  So, I have done a LOT of thinking, praying, singing, swearing, worrying…

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to feel those stirrings of love for Frosty, I never did.  For the record, I don’t think she ever cared for me, either.  But, we finally had abundant dairy products, the ability to try cheesemaking, and some of the most gorgeous and delicious butter ever eaten!

We ended up with a second cow.  She belonged to some friends who didn’t want to mess with the whole “intimate cow thing”, but really wanted milk.  If we would milk her, feed her, make sure she got bred; they would provide hay for all.  Seemed like a great deal! As I am sure you know…great deals usually come with a down-side.

Polly - just prior to calving
“Polly” was an old, spent dairy cow…afraid of everything…especially cowboy hats (boys, you should have been NICE!) but, she was a dear, giving lots and lots of milk…through LOTS and LOTS of effort.  She had little, teeny, tiny teats that required two fingered milking. (pointer finger and thumb…THOUSANDS of times) My fingers (and forearms) got really, really tired, but I prevailed.  The sad fact was…Polly wasn’t my cow true love, either.  She tried, she really tried, but she was old and tired and had been “abused”, so there wasn’t much left by the time she got here. After a couple of seasons, she expired, leaving us temporarily cow-less.

Enter Kuh! (Kuh is cow in German.  I read a story about a little girl with a milk cow when I was a little girl.  The story cow’s name was Kuh, and it seemed more appropriate than “Patsy”, which was Kuh's name when we got her.)

Kuh provided a slow but steady mount
for some little cow-girls

Kuh was an old, old (the vet couldn’t begin to guess her age) dairy cow who started her life in Wisconsin, and through some twist of fate ended up on an Amish organic vegetable farm in Pearisburg, VA.  We found out about her through a friend who was “finding himself” in the Amish community and needed a home for his cow when he found he was NOT in fact Amish. The Amish brothers helped us pack her in the back of our pick-up and up I-81 we went.  She stood up all the way home, chewing her cud and nodding in the breeze.  When she walked off the truck, she took immediate ownership of the barn and our hearts. 

Kuh, eating her beloved broccoli

Kuh was a character, to say the least. She would open the gate and let herself out…only to “tip-toe” back when she got caught.  She would rest her head on my shoulder with a contented air.  If you scratched her, she would either scratch you in return, or lick you all over.  She loved bread dough, and adored cinnamon rolls. In the springtime she would eat every onion in the paddock one at a time.  We learned that if there were onions, Kuh would find them.  We generally went without milk until onions were done, as it made the milk more than a little odoriferous.  But, broccoli was her favorite and was almost her undoing when she let herself out once and proceeded to eat about 100 plants in the night. 

Kuh and calf
She was a good old cow, despite more than one difficult birth, a still-birth and an annual bout with milk fever.  But, the recurring mastitis was a problem we just couldn’t beat. We tried everything, thought it was gone for good…only to have it come back with a vengeance. After about five years, it became obvious that Kuh’s time here on the farm was over. It is safe to say that we all loved Kuh and her eccentricities.  By this time, we had a new primary milk-cow…Gracie, and we couldn’t jeopardize her health with our emotional ties to Kuh.

I think we all shed a few tears the day that "Kuh-eee" left the farm.  It was almost like saying good-bye to an elderly aunt...or possibly a grandmother...

When it became apparent that we would need a new cow, the Boss made more than a few phonecalls. A dairyman in Crimora said we could come and look at a few cull cows.  When you want a “home-milk-cow”, you do not generally get the pick of the litter.  The old, spent, somewhat worn-out girls can get a little more time by going to a small home operation. This works to the benefit of both the home operation and the old cow.

We got a most unusual experience.  The dairyman took us along with him as he moved the cows between paddocks.  The wonder of walking with well over one HUNDRED dairy cows at they change fields defies description.  It felt like we were being swept along by some bovine tide. …if I had only taken pictures…

Gracie and Kuh
There was one cow in the herd that kept walking right along with me.  She reached out and mouthed my sweater.  She licked my hand.  I looked into her eyes…

The dairyman offered prices on a number of old girls.  We took an obligatory look.  The Boss had seen the exchange between the cow and me.  He asked the price.  I inwardly gasped.  I figured the search would continue.

The next day, the Boss made another phonecall.

About a week later, Gracie joined the farm.   Gracie was the most expensive gift the Boss has ever given me, and to this day I am grateful for the experiences that having Gracie afforded me, and I appreciate that the Boss made it all possible.

Gracie was an awesome cow.  She produced extremely well, had a most interesting “personality” and would do some things on command.  She adapted to the home operation with ease, taking over the barn from Kuh with little difficulty.  She was most definitely my cow, unlike Kuh who loved anyone who fed her.

Having Jersey cows means that you must learn to deal with MILK FEVER.  This ailment is a severe calcium deficiency that occurs shortly after the cow gives birth. It can kill the animal in a very short period of time, so time is of the essence.  Dairymen and women must learn to prevent the illness or treat it promptly.  By the time we got Gracie, we were on a first name basis with the vets and were doing all we could to learn to prevent the wretched ailment.

By regulating the cow’s nutrition just prior to calving, we were able to reduce and then prevent the awful ailment from occurring.  I finally felt like I had learned something when the vet told me, “Barbara, YOU know your cows!” We had to endure one bout of milk fever with Gracie, but after that, we learned to control it, earning the vet’s respect (finally). That was the best part of my dairying career.

Gracie and Penny heading to the barn
By the time that Gracie had her calf, Penny, times were “a-changin’ “on the farm.  After nearly ten years of having milk-cows, it was time to think about moving on to other things. Our daughters were grown, and doing other things, the cows took a LOT of time, the milk (and dairy products) took up a LOT of room, the Boss and I needed to re-focus.

We bred Penny, hoping for a heifer calf, in order to continue the line.  Although the calf was a heifer, it was born deformed and died shortly after its arrival. 

Penny was beautiful, and I had always wanted to raise out a heifer for our own milk-cow. So, we had finally met the goal, and we had overcome the milkfever issue. We could consider ourselves a success in the home dairying chapter of our lives.   But it was obvious that the cows were a luxury we really could no longer afford.  Bovine pets are completely impractical.  They need far too much space, feed, time and attention. Selling raw milk in our state is not allowed unless you “jump through the hoops”, and I have never had a desire to be a bootlegger.  There was just no way for the cows to pay for themselves.

I realized it was time to let go…time to move on…and sell that last cow.

In some ways, it was sad…letting go and moving on.  In many other ways, it was incredibly freeing…letting go and moving on. The Boss and I have been able to do far more withOUT the cows than we were ever able to do with them here.  Although, from time to time, we both miss those beautiful brown-eyed girls.

Polly, Frosty and Junior checking out the new addition
"T-Bone" (Angus bull in background)

My life was changed by gazing into those deep brown eyes all those years ago…and I don’t regret for one moment all that I have experienced due to my lifelong love of cows. The delicious dairy products and homegrown beef may have been only a secondary benefit. Having cows afforded me some amazing learning experiences I would not have gotten otherwise…lessons about life and death and faith and love. We have also gotten to meet and appreciate some very cool folks along the way.

All of that to say this…Cows are awesome!

While most folks will never get to have the “up close and personal” experience of a family milk cow, it is important for everyone to understand what goes into all those dairy products that so many of us enjoy. Dairy cows take a lot of work and commitment, and dairy families should be applauded for all their efforts.

It’s also important that we all take at least a minute during DAIRY month to appreciate all that those involved in the dairy business do for us on a daily basis.  

That’s why June was designated Dairy month…so eat some icecream, drink your milk and thank a farmer.  

B and A with Kuh and some beef critter
back "in the day"

 …and hug a cow 
                       if you get the chance!

Last year’s DAIRY MONTH entry can be found here:

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