Cows, contrary to popular belief, do not give milk, but rather, you have to take it. They do not strike cunning poses for photographers in green grassy pastures, they are all about the eating. They are not playful creatures with rakish senses of humor. And when a cow ruminates, it is all in the stomach, there is no thought. As a group, cows are slow-witted creatures of habit who donít take kindly to having their routine interrupted in any way. There are, of course, exceptions.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 19, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
One night a month, we test milk. We weigh each cow’s milk, take a sample, weigh the cows that have recently calved and fill out sheets recording births, deaths, cows that have left the herd and any other information relevant to milk production.
There are two ways that you can accomplish this: have a milk tester come to the barn to do the weighing and sampling or, you can do as we now do and do it all owner/sampler. The tester drops off the apparatus that weighs the milk as it goes from cow to pipeline and a box of sample jars numbered (in our case) from one to 50 with a couple of spares and one for a tank sample when milking is finished. When he returns, he puts all of the information into a computer program that spits out each cow’s daily production, previous daily production, percentage of deviation from one to the other, days in milk, projected yearly production, mature equivalent (what this cow is expected to produce in a year as a mature cow based on her current production), relative value (the percentage of this month’s milk weight compared to the previous month’s milk weight), the lactation the cow is in (how many years she has milked), and her reproductive status: is she bred, just fresh (having recently had a calf), dry (preparing to have a calf within the next six weeks) or in need of being bred. In about a week, we receive a packet of reports giving more detailed information concerning where each cow stands relative to her past production and the results of the tested samples listing the percentages of milk fat (our herd averages 3.8%), milk protein (3.1%) and a host of information to help us in making decisions about which cows stay, which leave the herd, whose calf to keep, whose to sell.
This, of course, leads us to the cows as individuals. Let me first make very clear that our cows are not seen as family members or pets, but on the other hand, neither do we see them as strictly organic milk factories. Most farmers walk a fine line in the understanding of their animals and the position they occupy. We raise all of our own replacements, keeping the calves from the cows whose production levels give the best percentage of income over production costs. This is not always the cow who has given the most.
I don’t remember a time when cows didn’t play a part in my life. I grew up on a small dairy farm that was run by my parents and grandparents. We had a Holstein herd, big black and white cows who grazed below the dirt road in pastures that stretched along the edge of the swamp during the day and up on the side hill above the barn after evening chores. There were cows in that herd that I still recall: The cow that our artificial insemination cooperative wanted a bull out of who had only heifer calves; the black witch who kicked everyone that went near her and kicked herself right out of the barn to the Tuesday cattle auction; the big, gentle cow who had a hormone imbalance and grew until she was too big for any of the stalls; and Speckles, a cow with a jaunty attitude toward life who let us ride her back to the barn, acting like a cow pony and herding the other cows. I should say here that, unless you are young and foolish, I don’t recommend riding cows. First, they have bony, peaky backs that weren’t made for a rider’s comfort and second, they don’t take direction well, often meandering off to browse through some particularly tempting clover.
Our own herd has had its share of memorable animals. We bought eight cows and 12 springing (close to freshening) heifers from Stan’s dad to start our herd. Among them was a big old cow we named Dobken who was the lead cow. She was a short, wide cow with an enormous udder and an equal amount of attitude. We also purchased a black heifer, Blackie, who had a bit of attitude all her own and, as it turned out, was Dobken’s daughter. When Blackie was close to calving, she went down by the evergreen copse on the west side of the pasture, away from the other cows, except for Dobken, who followed her down and stayed with her through the afternoon as she calved. It seemed quite odd, and was never repeated, but they definitely had that one mother-daughter moment.
As our herd grew, so did the personalities and quirks. Not all were good, one cow became a raving lunatic for the first three days after she calved, trying to kill her calf and anyone else who got near her. The fourth day, she was as calm as any cow in the barn and a good enough producer that we kept her in the herd. Another was a biter, but only when she was coming into heat. It could be quite a painful experience to walk in front of her on that particular day, but at least we didn’t have to guess when it was time to breed her.
Our herd is composed of both black and white Holsteins and red and white Holsteins and they mingle quite readily out in the pasture, but when they come in for the evening, you will find that they have segregated themselves. There will be a row of five or six black and whites, and then four or five red and whites, a couple of black and whites and so on. And then, there were Ger and Cranberry. Ger was a good size black and white cow from one of the best families in the herd. Cranberry was a well-built red and white from an equally fine family. They were born in February of 1998 and stood together as calves and then were pastured out together as heifers. They formed a lifelong bond of ill will and evil intention. Now, many of you will say that animals are not evil, that particular leaning applying only to mankind. Let me remind you that cows are among the cloven hooved. These two were born trouble makers, first to find the gate accidently left open and last to go back to where they should be; leave a manger open and they would walk down it, cleaning up the choice leftovers and pooping on every thing else. Every night at chore time, they would stand back a bit from the rest of the herd, waiting until all the other cows were in the barn and then, only if we sent Molley, our herd dog out, would they deign to grace us with their presence. They were bullies, pushing around any cows that got in their way, acting a lot like the bad girls who would go out behind the school during recess and smoke. I suspect that, if they had been able to strike a match, they would have tried even that bad habit. We thought perhaps that as they matured, they would be better behaved, but it never happened. Only when Ger left the herd did Cranberry become more compliant, but even then, there was a bit of sass in her attitude and a kick for the poor dog who had to get her moving in the direction of the barn. She left the herd this past fall, but not before she had graced us with at least one daughter who carried not only her coloring and production, but also a bit of her talent for trouble.
We call her the red elk. She has a beller* that once you hear, you never forget. She was due to calve in late September, and so joined the small herd of springing heifers and close cows in the paddocks behind the barn while the milking herd was put on the meadows for the last grazing of season. Every time one of the cows or heifers freshened, she would stay close to the cow and calf, stick by them like a burr when we tried to bring them to the barn, go into the stall that we wanted the fresh cow in, and then refuse to go back to the pasture without a fight, a run through a fence or two, a quick jog in the direction opposite that we wanted her to go and quick turns with her head down in an intimidating manner, all the while shrieking like a buck elk in rut. She was, unfortunately, the last to calve, so it was a long month and a half. She has spent the winter letting us know when she’s unhappy for any reason (or for no reason) with her trademark sound.
I suppose it would be easier to farm if all cows really were slow-witted creatures of habit, but it would probably get boring after awhile. Nonetheless, I think it might be worth a try.
*beller is a colloquialism and not found in dictionaries, but indicative of a very specific sound made by cows.
About Kathleen M. Tenpas
We have a grazing dairy of 55 cows in the rolling hills of western New York State where we raised two daughters who have now blessed us with four grandchildren. I have messy, jungly beds of old roses, (some real antiques left by former owners), perennials, wildflowers and lots and lots of not so ornamental grasses! I have a Masters degree in Creative Writing: Poetry from Antioch University. I am a photographer and fabric artist and I bake a mean loaf of bread.