Friday, March 18, 2011

Who Falls In Love With A Cow?

Kyle has forgotten that it’s the end of daylight savings time, so he can’t ride the Dartmouth Coach to Logan airport in Boston to catch his plane to New Orleans. He’s headed there for a week-long conference through the National Park Service- the first continuing ed program he’s attended in about 15 years. So I’m driving him there, but right now, it’s 3 am regular (well used-to-be) time, and we’re doing the chores while Bradford sleeps inside the farmhouse.

Kyle comes racing in from the horse barn to the main barn, where I am mucking out the cow stanchions and grabs a flashlight. “Jennifer, come!” he yell-whispers, then puts his finger to his lips, shushing my inevitable “why?”

We sneak out to the horse barn, where the door is open, but the lights are not on. There is an owl, a Barred Owl, sitting on top of the manure heap just a few feet away from us, looking down at the remains of my pet cow, Tildy Anne. We have composted her here, and now, this raptor is taking advantage of her remains. Here, too, congregate crows, starlings and red-tailed hawks in the daytime, and at night, foxes, mice and voles. It’s the little vermin that the owl is most likely trying to hunt in this snowy winter, where all of the animals that are dependent upon ground-dwelling rodents are desperate for a food source that is safely protected under the thick blanket of snow.

Who falls in love with a cow?

There’s no shame in fawning over the family dog, cute stuffed toy in mouth, or in swooning over the antics of the fuzzy, energetic cat as it pounces on the toilet paper roll.

But who falls in love with a cow?

My husband used to fight wild fires. He’d be flown out west, far from our eastern bubble in Vermont, and do “mop up,” not the spectacular sky jumping, but one of the crew that would come in after the blaze and make sure that it was really put out. On one of these excursions, I was left in our newly rented trailer in Vermont. It had taken me nine years to figure out a way back to my birth state and we had finally succeeded when Kyle was hired as the Ecologist for the new national park- the first in Vermont- at Marsh Billings Rockefeller in Woodstock. We found a trailer to live in with our menagerie of chickens, ducks, geese, goats, a horse and three sheep, a dog and four cats. When Kyle left to fight a fire out west, I felt as though I had not a clue what to do with myself. It was 1998 and February, a notoriously brutal month in Vermont, and I was sick of watching Bill Clinton try and lamely defend himself to the nation with his explanation of what sex was.

I had recently quit my job as refuge biologist for the Department of Interior on Monomoy Island , Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My days in Vermont were spent walking miles around the hillsides and back roads in search of a farm for us to purchase. On one foray, I stopped at a dairy farm and asked if the farmer would sell me milk. At first, he was wary, being in his 70s, and having grown used to our litigious society- his generation was built upon bartering and community- he wondered why I was asking. He finally agreed to sell me milk after I explained what Kyle and I wanted to do- to start farming in Vermont. He had three cows- Guernseys, from which he sold milk to neighbors directly from his farm. This was all done underground, because it had become illegal to sell milk in Vermont unless it was bottled and pasteurized in an inspected facility. So, for $3 a gallon, I could walk a mile to the farm and get organic, raw milk.

Back then, I didn’t have an iPod, so I listened as I walked, to the river, cracking its ice during the spring thaw, to the return of the first red-winged blackbirds, to the whish, whish of cars driving back and forth on Route 14 in the rural valleys of central-eastern Vermont.

Kyle would be gone for a little over two week intervals on the fires, but it seemed like much longer, especially in the winter months, when I am at the bottom of my game, because, well, even though I’m a Vermonter, I hate winter and I hate the cold. The walk to the farm was blissful to me.

When Kyle had been away for 9 days, I walked to get milk, and Bob, the farmer, asked me if I’d like a calf. He would breed his dairy cows to beef bulls (by way of artificial insemination) because he thought that they would become pregnant more easily by diversifying the genetics. The calf was a Guernsey-Hereford heifer- a female- and he had no use for her, because being half beef, she wouldn’t be a great milker, and being a dairy farmer, he wasn’t interested in raising beef. Besides that, Vermont farmers tend to frown on raising their heifers for slaughter, because it’s a perfectly good waste of an animal that is slow to mature and then replaces itself at the most only once a year (the boys, on the other hand, are usually expendable).

So I waited for Kyle to call me (this was before cell phones were bought and sold as easily as baseball cards used to be), and I asked him what I should do- I knew nothing about cattle. In true to form style, he said, “Do what you want to do.”

Having lived with each other for almost two decades now, he realizes the weight of these words, and after llamas, rabbits, white-tailed deer fawns and baby woodchucks, I don’t hear them as often.

I stuffed the heifer in the back of my Toyota Tercel, her eyes as wide as mine, and we unloaded at the trailer. I had made a make-shift shelter for her in a shed stuffed to the gills with the owner’s prized possessions that were too valuable to chuck—broken window panes, spent lawn mowers, rusting sap buckets and bent nails. She was 6 days old. I bottle fed her and walked her outside, and by the time Kyle got home, she was halter trained. I named her Fern, but our 90 year-old friend told me that that was no name for a cow- that her name should be Matildy Anne. And so she was.

Tildy was the lead cow of our herd. She’d tell me when the fence was down (by bellowing, but not getting out, even when the rest of the herd was in the garden), she’d be the first to lead everyone back into the barn in November, when the grass had gone, and the days would be spent eating hay in the paddock outside, but the nights would be spent tied in stanchions in the barn. She’d always have her babies on the wrong side of the electric fence, so we’d have to fish them out of the woods or the brook, and she’d be the peace keeper when new cows would join the herd.

Her biggest fault was an insatiable appetite for grain. She could figure out six ways to Sunday how to get to the grain in the barrel inside the barn, and on more than one occasion we had to chain her up and send dark beer down her gullet to kick start her bacteria in her stomach. Not this time.

This time, she knocked in the plywood wall and weaseled her way through the fenced gate to find the barrel. By the time I got to the barn, there was more than 60 pounds of it missing. When I found her, she was down, outside, and freezing cold temperatures were about to arrive after a bout of rain and snow. I could leave her outside or bring her in to treat her inside, running the risk that she would die, and then there would be a 900-pound body to deal with.

If it had been any other cow, not my pet cow, the practical thing would have been to keep her outside, but I couldn’t do it. So after crying on her pelt and pleading with her to get up, she did, and we made it to the barn. After two days of vetting, she crashed, and Kyle and I decided that she had had enough.

The life and death constant of farming is so overwhelming sometimes, especially when it’s winter, when there is no birdsong or no warm bath of sunlight to keep your spirits up. Winter especially brings death: the sickest, the oldest, the inexperienced all succumb.

If I called the vet to kill my cow, he would inject her with a substance that would be lethal to anything that would eat her later, and, although I frequently wish ill-will on coyotes, foxes and skunks, not all of them learn to eat my animals. And what about the red-tailed hawk, which has spent the winter here, perched in the dead cherry tree? Or the bald eagle that came to eat a lamb who never took a first breath? What about the barn cat that feeds on the carcasses of dead animals, or the birds and field mice that pick the bones clean? There was no point in even trying to dig a hole in the frozen ground beneath the three feet of snow, so the only option was to kill her myself by shooting her and to compost her.

Suffice it to say that I consider myself a pretty strong, practical type, when it comes to raising and eating animals and plants. But I have yet to be able to eat anything beef after Kyle and I killed Tildy Anne. Every time I look at beef, I see Tildy Anne, my first cow, whom I knew nothing about, and who taught me that farming isn’t just something I do, it’s something I have to do.

Today the cats and I lounged on the deck that overlooks the snow-covered fields, in the heat of a 50 degree spring day. The three new calves, Martin, Nestor and Fur Ball, are racing around in the paddock with their tails held high up over their backs. Their mothers are chewing their cuds and watching them play. Cider is Tildy’s three-year-old calf, and she is Fur Ball’s mother. She’s no lead cow. It looks as though Ginger, the petite Jersey-Ayshire cross may take over, her head always held high, sniffing the wind for signs. It may be an interesting summer, spent chasing calves and cows back inside fences. Hopefully, Tildy is watching somewhere and will give me a sign when the herd gets into the sweet corn.


  1. What a heart warming story-Luke looked over my shoulder just as I scrolled to the bottom of the page to the picture of Tildy.
    "Oh what a cute cow! Don't you want to get one of those?" he said.

  2. Jennifer, I looked your farm up after reading your book. I also was a field biologist, with birds, for a brief time. Now, at almost 50, I'm interested in a small farm in New England. Having been a devoted wildlife and pet lover my entire life, I know my emotions will be challenged when I bring goats and poultry and maybe more sorts of livestock into my life. This post about your cow sums up all my fears into one story. As a life-long, but liberal and reluctant, South-easterner myself, with a Canadian husband who is hedging on a return to real winters, the trials of New England winters on a small farm, possibly by myself, ring loudly.
    I know there are a number of good farm memoirs out today but it sounds like you have one in you and the talent to lay out honest prose that readers like me love.
    Thank you for this post.
    I'm very happy I found your blog and look forward to following.
    kind regards, Leecia