Making Hay

Week of January 10th, 2010 | The weather was warming up a bit.

Milking Time Back at the Barn

By Sarah Holm

Cows file back to the barn.

Cows file back to the barn.

As I ran to the barn, the sharp sound of my boots hitting the ice-covered driveway echoed sharply off the circle of buildings. The icy sound vainly tried to fill the yard long silenced by winter, but it quickly dissipated, swallowed by the cold. The weak sun was quickly disappearing behind a line of trees when I entered the quiet empty barn.

Every winter evening, the barn is so bare, so still, that it reminds me of when it was abandoned and we didn't have cows. But a couple of 'Here, kitties!', brings several cats running from their warm beds in the straw, and causes a couple of calves sleeping in a pen to open sleepy eyes, shake their heads and blink solemnly. There is life here.

I prepared the barn for the cows and went outside to get them. I always try to get them in before the sun goes down, and this day I was going to be successful. Our barn sits at the base of a very steep hill. The cows overwinter in the pasture at the top of this hill. The lane up it is treacherous. The natural steepness of the hill, the ice, the hard-packed snow, and my smooth steel-toe boots combine to make it a difficult climb. I run so I can jam my boots into the snow hard enough to get traction. The air is so cold that when I open my mouth, the moisture on my teeth immediately dries up and my breath turns into a fog that sifts onto my face and leaves it chilled and gray.

The cows are waiting about thirty feet from the makeshift barbwire gate. The dark brown circle they stand in is a stark contrast to the acres and acres of white spreading out before me. "Here boss! Come bossy!" I call over to them. My beckoning was unnecessary; they are already running toward me. I realize I may not get the stubborn gate open in time, and my calloused numb hands struggle with the cold wires of the gate frantically. I only have it opened two feet when the herd shoves toward the opening like a wave. Just as I feared, one cow rams right into the gate and get entangled in it. I struggle to keep the barb wire from cutting her and to keep the other cows away as I talk her out of it.

"Whoa! Whoa girl!" I say in a deep voice, holding out one hand in front of her face. Now she realizes the predicament she is in. As she starts to step about frantically trying to get away, I move close to get a hand on her. Touching her with my bare hand, I again tell her to calm down, and mentally will calm into her through my touch. The change in her demeanor is instant. She breathes deeply, relaxes, and at my verbal and physical direction, slowly steps her way out of the wires. "There you go girl," I say as soon as she is free, and with this assurance, she quickly runs to catch up with the herd. I fasten the gate behind the cows and follow them down. Going down the hill is almost as hard as going up. I usually end up running a few steps and then turning sideways and sliding on my boots for awhile. Occasionally though, I hit a crust of snow and get pitched into a snow bank, fence, old thistle, or cow.

The past few years we have been plagued by drought, and the nation's economic situation did not help the farm financially. We couldn't afford corn or corn silage. I had asked Dad what we were going to feed the cows during winter one night after dinner.

"Twigs and snowballs," he had said. "Twigs and snowballs."

Remembering this, I happily watch the cows lick up their meager ration of oats and eagerly rip into their rich green alfalfa hay. They do not give a lot of milk on this simple fare, but they are not malnourished by any means. Their hair is long and thick, their eyes are bright, and the herd has no mastitis infections or foot problems. The whole herd is energetic; even the old cows move like sassy young heifers.

The cows joyfully eat their hay while Rachel, Mary, and I milk them. They throw slices of hay into the air with their teeth, releasing clouds of miniscule alfalfa leaves. If a person goes into the field aisle for even a short time, they will emerge with a bright green tinge.

We were almost done milking when Erika came in with the baby.

"Hey Danny!" I cried, straightening from taking a milker off of Penny. The ten-month old stared soberly at me from inside his bundle of clothing. He turned to look at the line of cows, then turned and looked back at me and blinked.

"He wouldn't stop crying so I brought him out here," Erika explained. She set him down and he grabbed a hold of her fingers and they set off to march up and down the feed aisle for thirty minutes. "Gah. Gah. Gah," I could hear him repeating as he pointed at each animal. I knew Erika was helping him pet them. He loves the cows, and they are always curious to see him.

I finished milking and took care of the milking equipment in the milk house. I had just gotten the wash cycle going and the calves' bottles ready when the door opened slowly. No one came in though, so I turned from the sink and walked over to see what was going on. Danny had led Erika to the milkhouse and had made her open the door. We laughed at his surprised expression upon seeing me, and I gathered up the bottles and all three of us went to feed the calves.

Daniel was fascinated with the calf feeding process. He even wanted to hold the bottle for a calf himself. I let him do this, but he got tired and sat on Erika's lap to watch me feed the calves. But he was not content to sit forever. "Dah! Daaah!" he yelled urgently and reached for a bottle.

"Here," Erika said, "You better just let him have the empty one. He just wants to hold it."

I gave him the bottle and he held it contently for awhile. It was rather funny to see, because the bottle was almost as tall as he was. Erika and I were talking about something, when I realized Daniel was rotating the bottle towards his mouth. "Erika!" I gasped, and grabbed for it. She jumped and snatched the calf-spit covered nipple away from his mouth. "Danny! Don't eat that!" The poor boy looked at us, heartbroken, and his mouth began to quiver. "Oh, the poor baby!" I said, "He was only trying to get something to eat!" This struck us as so funny that we could hardly stand up for laughing. Pretty soon the baby was laughing too. "Eeee! Eee! Eee!" he screeched in between his laughs, and wildly waved his fists in the air.

Farm Fact: A female bovine that has not had a calf is called a heifer.

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Janet from from Sturgeon Bay, WI on September 23, 2010 at 02:34:30 PM
I thought that dairy cows could not go outside in the winter months because they can't take the cold on their teat's bare flesh?
Read"Soul Food From a Farm Girl" Sarah has a gift;-)
Angie at Organic Valley

Hi Janet, here's Sarah's response:

While it is a possibility for cows to suffer frost bite on their teats in extremely harsh weather, that does not mean they must be kept indoors all winter. Cows will grow very thick coats, and even thick hair on their udders in the cooler months. Farmers do take precautions against this problem in various ways. For my farm, on extremely bitter cold days and nights we will keep the cows in the barn. We also use a different teat dip on them in the winter that is more insulating and less harsh, and we take pains to make sure the dip is completely dry before letting them outside. Often, one of us will go after milking and wipe each cow's teats with a separate paper towel just to make sure we take the excess moisture off.

But the cows really do enjoy being outside, and often I find our herd is healthier in the winter. Thanks for the question!


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