Tuesday, October 13, 2015

About Cows

by Lif Strand (c) 1996, 2015

Until I made personal acquaintance with one, I never had anything against cows. I mean, aside from the nasty smell of dairy farms and feed lots - the memory of which I tend to push to the back of my head (especially when in grocery stores) - what’s to dislike about cows?

You see a few black and white bossies munching on green, grassy hillsides and you've got to smile. And who can resist the big Guernsey doe-eyes? As for the vast range land of the West, dotted with Herefords, Angus, or better yet, longhorns - why that’s practically an icon of our mighty country. 

So, until 1996, I thought cows were pretty much OK. Until then I might have even harbored a thought or two about fresh milk in the morning, home-grown steaks, a few calves out in the back 40. I had never had to deal with cows up close and personal, you see.

Then I met Fraulein.

It was our friend C's fault (initial only, to protect the guilty). Retired from ranching, widowed and bored, he’d been hanging out at the dude ranch where I was employed as head wrangler. This high-end management position entailed about 10 hours a day of scooping manure; feeding and grooming and tacking up the dude string; taking uncoordinated, unfit and complaining dude riders on one hour trail rides; and carrying plate scrapings and coffee grounds from the lodge to the chickens. What C found entertaining in all this escaped me, but he spent a lot of time hanging around, making unhelpful comments and generally getting in the way. 

One of his most unhelpful comments involved the superior qualities of ice cream made from fresh, unpasteurized, unhomonogized milk. This comment marked the beginning of the end of my heretofore pleasant and uneventful relationship with cows.

C’s parents had a milk cow when he and his siblings were growing up. Later, C’s wife also had one. While she was into making cheeses, C’s specialty with fresh, raw milk was butter, making it just the way he used to as a kid. C had fond memories of this butter making, and so - even though he himself did not drink milk, and even though he lived alone and thus consumed little butter - he decided it would be a great idea for him to own a milk cow. He also thought it would be a great idea for me to help him find this cow. Over my protestations of no cow husbandry or dairy experience, I found myself using up one of my rare days off for The Great Cow Hunt on the Rio Grande.

My vote for making a few exploratory phone calls first was quickly vetoed, so we headed east and north with no plan that C was willing to share. While we parked and moseyed up to the Lemitar Livestock Auction building, our first stop, I ventured to ask why C thought there’d be any dairy cows at this auction in the middle of beef country. I was informed that there were quite a few commercial dairy farms south of Albuquerque, their lush pastures irrigated by the muddy Rio Grande. C was sure that there’d not only be Jerseys or Guernseys, but they’d be good milk producing cows that would be in calf as well. It defied any logic I could come up with that any dairyman in his right mind would take such a beast to auction, but we were spared further discussion by the discovery that the one dairy cow at the auction had already been sold. I guess arriving 2 hours late for the auction hadn't been such a good idea, but the rickety old trailer C pulled behind his tiny Toyota pickup weaved whenever he drove faster than 35 mph.  The 125 mile drive from his place to the auction a wee bit longer than we’d planned, and hotter, too, because it turned out the air conditioner was broken. 

Never mind, we were in time for the auction's noon break, so we ate in the air-conditioned lunch room and moved on.

C’s newly revised plan involved driving further north to Belen, where he was sure he would find the dairy he’d sold his wife’s cow to 6 years prior. Barring success with that, he’d just stop at the first dairy farm we came to and pick up a cow. Four or five farms and several sweaty and miserable hours later, this approach did not seem like such a good one. If there’d been doors to slam in our faces, our noses would’ve been pretty flat. I was ready to call the whole thing a bust but C convinced me to stop at one more dairy farm, just north of Socorro. If there was no cow here for C he promised we’d get some dinner and go home. C perked up considerably as we pulled into the yard (coincidentally just across the freeway from the Lemitar Livestock Auction of many hours ago). He now recalled that this dairy was, in fact, the one where he’d sold his wife’s cow.

Although the owner apologized for not remembering that particular cow, he did miraculously agree to sell a cow to us. I was skeptical of the whole deal, especially when I saw what the cowman picked out. Like I said, I don’t have any cow experience, but somewhere in the dusty corridors of my memory I recalled that a milk cow should be broad in the pelvis, have 4 even sized udders and good feet. Josephine (the cowman swore that he knew the names of all 300 of his cows) was presented to C as an excellent choice.

She wasn’t exactly pedigreed, the cowman admitted, but it looked to him like she might have some Jersey and some Guernsey in her. He did not point out the thin and flabby udders, nor the small size of her bag, which was quite small compared to those grotesquely distended ones of all the other cows. If milk had ever been in those udders, it was a long time ago. It seemed to me that perhaps these were not good signs. But then Josephine proved to not be pregnant. She was rejected, in spite of her very good feet.

C agreed to the cowman’s second choice, Fraulein, who proved somewhat difficult to catch. I held back comment, wondering how C, with his bum ankle and one lung, was going to handle clever Fraulein in the future. As the temperature had not dropped from the mid 90s all day and I was overheated, short-tempered and hungry, I contented myself with hanging out in the shade of the milking barn while the two men took a great long time to work Fraulein towards an aisle leading to a cattle chute. Of course, I had to sympathize with Fraulein , because I could not imagine that the pregnancy checking process, involving a shoulder length plastic glove for the dairyman and much fecal matter on the part of the cow, was anything Fraulein was looking forward to.

An hour or so later, Fraulein was in the rickety trailer and we were on our way home. C was $75 poorer than he’d have been if he’d purchased Josephine. True, Fraulein anatomy was an improvement over Josephine's, but besides the fact that she was hard to catch there was no calf in her either. This was a minor point that C had tossed aside with a wave of his hand. He had also tossed aside a few questions of mine that I thought were quite pertinent, such as did C have a milking stanchion? (No.) A cow halter? (Why would he need one?) Milking buckets? (Pots from the kitchen worked fine.) What about the fact that Fraulein had never been hand milked before? (No problem). Hmmm.

It was much cooler when we got back to C's place, probably since it hadn’t been daylight for many hours. Miraculously the cow hadn’t suffered any physical damage from the trip even though the trailer had shed a few parts along the way as a consequence of her jumping around so much in the back. She was mightily miserable as we shooed her into a small pen next to C's barn, since she was well overdue for her afternoon milking.

I wondered how C was going to deal with this poor tempered beast in the dark (no electricity in the barn), but this wasn’t going to be a problem for him since since he was planning on heading straight to bed. I looked doubtfully at Fraulein's milk-engorged bag, listened to her groans, and recalled all the stories I’d read as a kid about having to milk that cow on time no matter whether or not Lassie was barking or Fury was whinnying about the danger coming down the road.

And then I made a fatal mistake. I said, brilliantly, I'd milk her myself. After all, I reasoned, how hard could it be? I’d seen it done on TV a zillion times. And I was sure I’d read about it in a book sometime or other.

I won't go into the gory details here. I did relieve some of the cow's discomfort but it wasn't pleasant for either of us. Just let me say that a cow that has only ever lived her life in a commercial dairy has no idea how to be a cow. She’s been milked by milking machine since day one. To put it bluntly, it toughens those teats right up. Fraulein had never had anything as soft as her own calf’s mouth sucking at her much less an inexperienced human hand weakly squeezing and yanking at her swollen and painful teats (only one hand because the other was occupied elsewise).

A cow’s way of expressing displeasure is first indicated by a thrashing tail, said tail generally also holding a quantity of manure like a brush holds paint. Cow manure is similar to paint, too, in that it is mostly liquid and it will color the object that it is applied to. I realized that evening that I much preferred the smell of paint to manure. I furthermore realized that holding a penlight in one’s mouth may lead to unwanted foreign objects entering the mouth. It’s not a memory I like to dwell on.

A cow’s next way of expressing displeasure is the use of her hind feet. You’ve no doubt heard the term cow-kick. A regular kick is one by the hind foot aimed backwards. A cow-kick is one that goes forward, perhaps with a bit of English to the side. It hurts when it connects with a human body part, say a hand that's holding a milk pail. When a cow cow-kicks the milk pail (or in this case, the old coffee percolator I stumbled across in the tack room) it is knocked over, spilling the contents. The loss of the few ounces of milk that had actually accumulated hardly mattered since nobody was going to drink milk that had dead bugs and cobwebs floating in it anyway. It did bother me to discover that milk turns out to be quite sticky when it soaks the knees of your jeans.

A third way a cow expresses displeasure is by leaving the scene. The rope I had looped over Fraulein's neck and fashioned into a crude halter was for roping and was therefore quite stiff. Thus it simply shook loose when Fraulein tossed her head. Even if it had stayed on, I couldn’t have prevented her from walking off, not without having the end of the rope tied securely to something like a freeway support piller. I only wonder why she didn’t do that first thing.

Did I mention cow drool? Did I neglect to note how cow piss splashes as it hits the ground? Never mind.

Here is the horror of it all: I escaped to the dude ranch and left C to the tender mercies of the cow. But then, after just a week or two, he drove up hauling the damn beast in his rickety trailer. He was donating Fraulein to the ranch, he said. The owner actually fell for it when C explained how the guests would enjoy fresh milk right out of the cow, how kids could learn how to milk, how he could demonstrate butter making. 

“But who will milk the cow every day?” the owner asked.

The two of them turned to me. 

“She can milk the cow,” C said, with a grin. “She’s good at it.”

And that, my friends, is why I don’t like cows.