I'm glad to see that the dairy cows are still out to pasture. They look clean and healthy after yesterday's rain. Organic milking cows enjoy their freedom to wander the farm pastures day and night; they can lie down wherever they choose. They have a variety of fresh green plants to eat, and plenty of clear, clean water to drink. They can sleep with contentment in quiet, calm darkness in their peaceful surroundings.
Organic dairy cows live an altogether different existence than do the cows in some large commercial dairy operations. Those cows often spend nearly all their time in an enclosed area, where there isn't much for them to do besides move from the water tank to the feeder bunk. I have seen several hundred cows confined together in the same small, unnatural quarters. They never experience darkness, as the lights above them stay on every night. The sun and rain may rarely, if ever, touch them, and they must lie down in their own excrement.
Having lived and worked on a small, country dairy farm, I see very little in common between organic family farms and large, conventional "factory farms." The farmer who raises organic cows does so the same way he treats his land and his family -- with plenty of TLC. The farm family works hard to create a healthy lifestyle and a clean environment, living in harmony with nature. The rewards of organic farming go far beyond the amount of the monthly milk check.
The weather here has been great, providing farmers the opportunity to "make hay while the sun shines. When they break open a bale on a cold February morning, the smell of fresh alfalfa may remind them of that warm September day. The cows will also smell the hay, and anticipate a taste of summer.
Frost will come soon. The fields of waving green corn stalks will turn brown, and the dry leaves will rustle in the breeze. There is more color in the trees each day.
In the fall, cows share their pastures with migrating birds. Blackbirds, grackles, robins, cowbirds, bluebirds, and others scurry to snap up grasshoppers and crickets kicked up by the cows.
These same pastures were once prairie grasslands, grazed by elk and buffalo. They too shared the land with birds, some that remain the same and others that are now gone. Some of the prairie birds who once lived here include the Upland plover, Dickcissel, barn owl, short-eared owl, prairie chicken, grassland sparrow, and sharp-tailed grouse.
The prairie grouse was about the size of a small domestic chicken, but that's where the similarity ends. Prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse are true wild birds of the prairie, always alert for danger and extremely strong flyers. In the spring they reveal their lively spirit though high-energy courtship antics. The males emit loud calls and dance frantically on a small patch of land called booming grounds. Of all the courtships by wild birds in Wisconsin, my favorite to watch is that of the prairie grouse. Unfortunately, due to loss of habitat, there are only a few remaining of these once-numerous birds.
These birds depend on open land - wetlands, dry marshes, and grasslands - to survive and reproduce. If it wasn't for pastured farm land, many more of these birds would be gone. Having been a forester for many years, I know the cash value of a forest. But it's important to plant native grasses and wildflowers too, because grasslands - pastures - provide far greater dividends.
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