Lessons Learned from a Dairy Cow

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"I felt gratitude to the small animal that required me to spend those quiet hours in the barn and now enabled me to grieve."
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"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.

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.

Gwen came from a huge concrete dairy where, at two years of age, she was headed to slaughter for her low production — just three gallons a day. We bought her at a slaughter price of forty-five cents a pound. Her low production seemed like bounty to us and, despite her lack of experience, Gwen raised the orphan calves with admirable dedication. It was like a dress rehearsal for her because as a bonus, Gwen arrived on the ranch two months’ pregnant.

As fall approached and Gwen neared her due date, we drove five hours, to Portland, to make the last of four weekend deliveries of beef to our customers. We returned relieved and tired, with checks that combined to make one-quarter of our annual income. But then we found the lifeless body of Gwen’s calf by her side. It wasn’t clear why the tiny heifer hadn’t made it. Gwen hadn’t moved from the area of the birth. We took the calf’s little body, already partially ravaged by the coyotes, to bury it. I felt an intense wave of sadness. As my affection for Gwen had grown, I dreamed of a Jersey heifer calf and eventually two lovely cows in the barnyard.

The first part of my wish had come true, but I wasn’t able to save her. Rage welled up in me. I swore and kicked at the ground, and then, taking a deep breath, recited our family mantra to myself: “It can’t be changed. Don’t think about it.”

Instead, I focused on the task at hand. Gwen faced the very real danger of contracting mastitis, which could prove fatal. The only way to prevent the ailment was to watch her closely and extract all of the milk she produced, at least twice a day.

Thus began my morning and evening rituals with Gwen. There was a certain serendipity to the sadness. Had her calf died earlier in the year, I couldn’t possibly have spared those hours to spend with Gwen. Each and every week prior had been a flurry of phone calls and orders, meetings, and hours of driving. They’d consisted of late nights in my tiny office where I e-mailed beef customers, chefs, and distributors; paid bills; and applied for a larger operating loan. Suddenly, it was November and as the last few checks came in, I realized that for the first time since I began raising cattle, their sum total would be enough to pay off the operating loan. That meant I didn’t have to take a part-time winter job to pay the bills. And that meant I could afford the time in the barn with Gwen.

The responsibility of a newly fresh (lactating) Jersey wasn’t exactly on a par with what I faced when I’d had my first child, but the sense of duty and pressure was strikingly similar. When I brought home our first baby, I read every baby book I could lay my hands on, trying to prepare for all the problems I was certain I’d encounter. Now I was reading about milk fever and mastitis and ketosis and trying to decide how much and what type of grain to feed. I knew that dairy cows were part of my family history, but my grandma and her vast experience were gone, leaving me in the shed with a bucket and a stool, relics hanging on the side of the barn, wondering what to do. How much milk can I leave? How much grain should I give? How many days of colostrum will there be? And when will my hands stop aching?

Balanced on the stool, I rested my head against Gwen’s flank and placed my hands around her long, full teats. The motion felt awkward at first — I pinched with my thumb and forefinger and squeezed with the other fingers, one after the other, until I heard the stream of liquid splashing into the bucket. I repeated the routine morning and evening, each time slightly faster and with more confidence.

The milkings were a welcome reprieve. No phone calls, no e-mails, no lists of demands — just the straw, the warm brown cow with her big black eyes, and the steam that rose from the silver bucket. Some nights I thought about our business and its challenges, but more often I thought of my grandma. Summer had been so busy — with new sales and deliveries and our three young children — that when we heard Grandma’s final diagnosis in July, I could only sit by her side, hold her hand, and invoke the longstanding family tradition of setting aside difficult emotions for later.

And that meant not thinking about losing her and what it would mean to us.

I thought of her sitting on that same stool countless times before me. She was the matriarch, descended from wealthy German immigrants. Her father had left the family business to become a rancher and marry the woman who taught in the one-room schoolhouse. My grandma was the first of their four daughters. She grew up like a pioneer child and spoke often of her love of saddle horses. Grandma rode until she was in her late eighties and after that always claimed riding was what she missed most. She was a loyal and devoted grandmother who taught me how to make big roasts and mashed potatoes and gravy. She canned our fruits and vegetables and delighted everyone with her lemon pies. But these were skills of necessity. Her passion was for animals and, even in her nineties, she would drive the feed pickup for us in the winter because seeing the cows gave her such joy.

When I came into the world, Grandma was already sixty. She lived in a different time, and after my own father passed away, my grandmother was my connection to our family legacy. She and I spent evenings looking at old photos of her childhood. She told me about the milk cows, the pigs, and the chickens that her mother raised. In those days, they kept the steers on grass until it was time to put them on the train to Portland. She had decades of knowledge and experience that tempered the hard times we encountered. When we lost two of our best cows, heavy with calf, because they fell upside down into a ditch, she told us about a morning decades earlier when Grandpa had awakened to find six dead cows in the same ditch.

Even though she no longer worked on the ranch every day, we felt her presence everywhere. Our cows came from her cows. The barns and sheds we used were once hers. And the house where we live is where she raised my father and uncle. Her lifetime of dedication and perseverance had made it possible for us to ranch, and she passed on to us, along with the assets, her expectations: hard work, taking hardship in stride, pride, faith, charity, and loyalty.

I knew I was in charge of the business of running the family ranch, but her death pushed me to the emotional helm of the ranch, a role that felt overwhelming. I made decisions and implemented changes with confidence, but my assured manner was a thin veil that barely masked the intense pressure I felt to keep the ranch going, and the reoccurring uncertainty that I could pull it off.

One evening before Grandma died, she said, “You do things a lot like my mother.” We had stopped feeding our cattle grain and instead were selling shares of beef to city dwellers who appreciated our connection to the land. We’d also picked up some wholesale accounts and were supplying beef to several colleges and universities, as well as to a large hospital. Grandma’s observation reassured me that, through all the changes, Dave and I were stumbling down a path that had been walked before us.

At Gwen’s side, the streams of cream turned to drops and for the first time I allowed my tears to fall to the straw. I felt gratitude to the small animal that required me to spend those quiet hours in the barn and now enabled me to grieve. As I carried the bucket of milk back to the house, I wished Grandma could have been with us a few months longer.

A day earlier, I’d taken the ripened cream from the kitchen counter and poured it into the Kitchen Aid mixer she gave us for our wedding. The cream rose and whipped and flattened. And stayed flat, never producing butter. I looked for advice online, longing for the customized guidance Grandma would have given. She would have known how to make butter from a Jersey eating our grass and our grain at our exact elevation. There was no substitute for what she knew and what I lost when I lost her. Even though I wanted her to see me pay off our loan, even though I longed for that lesson in butter-making, even though I have many new questions to ask her, I cling to the answers she already gave me, especially this one: We are on a familiar path and, through stubborn perseverance, we too will make our living on the ranch.

More from Greenhorns:
Taking on Debt to Finance a Dream

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in environmental policy and spending a few years working on Capitol Hill and in Los Angeles, Cory Carmen returned home to rural Oregon. Today, she and her husband, David Flynn, are the fourth generation to raise their children on the family cattle ranch. Excerpted fromGreenhorns, © by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

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