Lessons Learned from a Dairy Cow

Learn about the unexpected lessons a rancher learned while caring for a dairy cow.

  • Greenhorn
    "I felt gratitude to the small animal that required me to spend those quiet hours in the barn and now enabled me to grieve."
    Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus/Rike_
  • Greenhorns
    "Greenhorns" edited by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severline von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo is a must-read for new farmers, self-reliance enthusiasts, and anyone interested in organic food.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

  • Greenhorn
  • Greenhorns

Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers' Movement (Storey Publishing, 2012), by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo is a collection of inspirational essays written by members of the Greenhorns — a non-profit organization that recruits and supports a new generation of young farmers across urban, rural and suburban areas. Topics in the book include financing, family logistics, machinery, community building, and social change. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, "Beasts."

I’ve always been happiest around cattle; it’s a trait I inherited from my father and grandmother. Since I was twenty-four, raising beef cattle has been my profession. I appreciate the predictable, indifferent ways of cows, how well they fit in to our mountainous landscape, and that they require little in the way of human interaction. But last winter, in the dark corner of a hundred-year-old barn, my friend Liza, also a beef rancher, introduced me to her dairy cow, Jewel.

Generally speaking, ranchers don’t need milk cows. We like our work to change with the seasons rather than taking on routine daily chores. Our cattle are selected for hardiness and thrift, and we count on them to survive with minimal human intervention. On those occasions when we do vaccinate or sort them, they can’t wait for the interaction to end.

Dairy animals are strikingly different. Centuries of breeding for high milk production and easy demeanor have resulted in cows that are intelligent, sensitive, and friendly.

Before my time, our ranch was home to several Jerseys, Guernseys, and a few Holsteins. I knew that Grandma had sold milk to neighbors for years. The family referred to the stash from these sales as the “milk money,” and it enabled her to expand her large collection of antiques and intricate cut glass. When I met Jewel, I thought about all the stories. For the very first time, I thought, I’d met a bovine that was interested in more than just getting out of my way.

As much as I longed for my own doe-eyed dairy cow, we already had pigs, chickens, and way too much to do; another animal around the barnyard was out of the question. Yet something strange transpired the following spring. In a herd of beef cows numbering fewer than two hundred, we saw seven sets of twins. Not designed for milk production, Angus cattle often falter at raising more than one calf. Besides, a cow would inevitably lose one of the calves out on the range, forcing it to fend for itself or starve. We coerced a few Herefords into keeping both of their calves, but two orphans remained. So I called Liza, who connected me with my first Jersey, Gwen.

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