Our first agrarian images often come from children’s picture books. Typically a large-eyed cow is depicted in a grassy pasture with other farm animals nearby, a cozy red barn in the distance. Although idealized for illustration purposes, such scenes were once commonplace. It wasn’t too long ago that a family’s self-sufficiency included milking a cow or two, but today, most folks find their dairy products at the grocery store.
Concerns about the quality of our family’s food led us to the organic aisle, but our daughter Claire wanted to take the next step and bring a dairy cow to our small homestead. We were impressed with Claire’s research and were finally convinced that the project would be an educational family experience. So we talked to area dairy farmers, read everything available on the subject and looked at young heifers for sale. At the same time, and with the help of a few friends, we built a barn and seeded pastures with a special mix of grasses.
That autumn, we purchased a pregnant 3-year-old Guernsey cow named Isabelle from a local organic farm. Pleased by the concept of a family cow, the farmer chose the most gentle and friendly of his animals for us.
Within 24 hours of Isabelle’s arrival, we understood how the nursery-rhyme cow might have jumped over the moon. When Isabelle stepped from the horse trailer, she greeted us all with curious licks and generous amounts of drool. She then moseyed around the barn, sniffing everything before sauntering out to graze. After months of preparation, the cow was here, and we relaxed.
Claire spent hours with Isabelle that first morning but finally decided to come in the house for some overdue lunch. She put Isabelle in a roomy box stall. Moments after coming in, Claire shrieked, “The cow is out!” and ran the 600 feet out to the barn in the time it took me to hurry to the back porch.
Isabelle had decided to leave. The latched steel gate doubly fastened by a heavy chain did not stymie her. She simply put her huge head through the gate and lifted it off its hinges. As soon as Isabelle was lured back inside the fence, my husband, Mark, reinforced the gate in a manner necessary to befuddle even our apparently brilliant cow.
Next came milking time. Although I harbored fond illusions of a hand-milked cow, Isabelle was used to a machine, so we purchased a compact 50-year-old milking machine. We’d already built a wooden milking stand according to exacting specifications. We were ready. However, Izzy, as we now called her, refused to stay in the milking stand. She made this clear by turning around completely in that tight space. We tried repeatedly. Whenever Mark pushed against her, he discovered that she would lean back against him with her own considerable weight, as if glad to take a load off.
We knew she must want the discomfort of a full udder relieved, but she needed the cues of routine. Finally, we tried turning on the milking machine before attempting to get her back in the stand. Once she heard the familiar hum, she calmed and assumed the position on her own.
Relieved by this success, we let Isabelle out to graze. The farm where Isabelle was raised had an electric fence. We didn’t think it likely that she could tell the difference. We were wrong. She tried tamping down the wire with her feet. When that didn’t work, she began pushing on the nearest fence post. The pasture is enclosed by rough hewn posts strung with taut wire. These are large posts set into 38-inch deep holes and held in place with earth anchors.
Izzy loosened the post significantly before we cajoled her into the barn.
Plan B included another trip to the farm store for electric fence supplies. The wires look innocuous but are charged with 20,000 volts on an intermittent cycle. After installing it with his dad, our oldest son carefully closed the gate and reached for the chain to secure it. The chain, which had gotten tangled in the electric fence, gave him a painful (but harmless) shock when he grabbed it. The cow made no such mistake. She immediately recognized the fence charger relay’s faint clicking and has kept her distance from the fence ever since.
The next morning at milking time, Claire and Mark went out and turned on the milking machine. Isabelle stood in the stand compliantly. Abruptly she changed her mind and left. Attempts made to tie her to the stand, to milk her outside the stand, even to hand milk were to no avail.
Back to the store to buy a stanchion just like her former owner used. An hour later it was installed. I swear Isabelle nodded. She stood in place, delivered two gallons of milk, and then chewed her cud with the contentment of a cow that had gotten her way.
Like our forthright bovine, we have also learned to insist on our own way. That spring Isabelle gave birth to Rosalie. She raised the calf attentively, using distinctive sounds to call, warn and reassure her. They slept together and grazed in the sunshine together. Our vet, who has served this rural area for decades, commented that ours was the only dairy cow he’d seen that raised her own calf. We’ve always had more than enough milk for our family while she nursed her calf for a year. This is not a conventional dairy practice, but since we aren’t worried about maximum milk production, it works nicely.
We have also found that milking our cow once each day provides us with just the right amount of milk.
Our barn is just up a wooded hillside. Isabelle grazes in the pasture while Shiloh, a young steer, sleeps in the shade nearby. One of the barn cats dozes on the calf’s warm back. Chickens forage under the trees and in the barnyard. Some peck for bugs close to Isabelle’s feet. It’s a peaceful scene – a picture book brought to life.
Laura Weldon and her family of six live on a small farm with cows, chickens and bees. Laura makes her living by writing and editing. This is fortunate, as her family assures her she could never make a living selling her homemade cheddar.