Tuesday, 19 August 2008
Teat Dip Blues (or, confessions of a milkmaid)
Although I have fond childhood memories of playing in haylofts and patting calves on farms near my Dad’s cabin, getting intimate with a cow’s underside was never high on my priority list. But when you marry a man who grew up on a dairy farm, you learn to appreciate the grimy beauty of the barn pretty quickly.
Over the past few years, I’ve progressed from being the girl in ill-fitting coveralls who’s constantly in the way to confident scraper of poop and feeder of cats. Recently, I graduated to the status of bona fide milkmaid. I knew I’d reached the pinnacle of my dairy career when I was allowed to assist my in-laws with morning milkings for five straight days.
I could go on at length about all the interesting things I’ve learned while doing the milking - how to push a 300lb grain cart without dumping it in the gutter, how to avoid a nasty spatter of calf scours - but one vital truth revealed itself to me during my week of being a milkmaid. And it is this: cows are stupid.
That may sound harsh, especially to anyone who hasn’t been crammed into a barn on a humid August night with 46 of the obstinate creatures. But trust me, it’s true.
I didn’t always feel this way. I grew up reading books by Barbara Woodhouse, famous dog trainer and all-around animal guru. She maintained that all animals had an innate wisdom and that, with the right training and a little patience, could be taught to do anything. As proof of this, she’d saddle up her Jersey cow and ride it through the English countryside, much to the consternation of her neighbours.
As a result of my Woodhouse education, I thought that cows would have a beautiful bovine wisdom about them, a placid intelligence that I couldn’t help but admire. Why, after a few milkings, I’d probably become one with these gentle, useful creatures. My in-laws’ milk quota would likely skyrocket whenever I was around.
Then came the poo-covered tail in the face of reality: cows aren’t smart at all. In fact, many of them seem downright dumb. I’ve decided that cows, valuable creatures though they are, were put on earth solely to test the patience of inexperienced milkmaids and even hardened dairymen.
For example, I’ve seen a seasoned cow come lumbering out of the pen, udders squirting milk in every direction. It is clearly time for her to be milked. She has been doing this routine twice a day, every day, for approximately three months. And yet she stops dead in front of three open stalls, looking around in wide-eyed confusion like the kid at the Christmas pageant who has forgotten her lines.
“Mrs. Cow,” I tell her, “we’ve been through this. You know the drill. I have a pitchfork and I’m not afraid to use it. Get in the stall!”
Mrs. Cow continues to look at me blankly until I make good on my promise and poke her in the rump with the blunt end of my pitchfork (I haven’t quite gotten used to the pointy end yet). She looks surprised, shambles into the nearest stall, and surveys her surroundings with wonderment, as though this isn’t the 300th time she’s been there. Repeat this performance several times in a row and it’s enough to make you switch to soymilk.
Expecting a cow to behave is an exercise in futility. Take “The Kicker.” She’s been milking for two years. She isn’t sick, injured or mistreated. But every blessed time someone approaches her udders, she kicks. Once, as my brother-in-law was grimly outfitting The Kicker with her pretty red “anti kick” strap, I asked him why he didn’t use cow psychology on problem cows. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me as though I’d asked why he didn’t paint the cows’ toes pink. I won’t print his response here, but suffice it to say I don’t ask about cow psychology anymore. I figured my bro-in-law was just crusty and unwilling to entertain new ideas, so I asked another dairy farmer who graduated with the same agricultural degree that D did. Strangely enough, I got the same look of disgust. I asked this fellow whether there was anything one could do about a cow that kicked. He nodded. "Yeah, there's something you can do all right. Ship the bitch."
Still, I suspect there may be a million dollar business lurking behind my idea. There are horse whisperers and dog psychics; why not cow psychologists? If I owned a dairy farm, I’d make room in the budget for a bovine therapist. Or at least a really big pitchfork.