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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pure Jersey Cream, Part 4 of 4

My cow adventures are finally (and sadly) coming to a close...  Enjoy, my friends.

Day 13 (Saturday)
After the morning milking and getting the cows out to feed on fresh grass and hay, all the other animals were ready gnaw on something too.  If I walk anywhere near the hen house, I’ve got 3 dozen chickens following me in a matter of seconds.  Either they are on a feeding schedule, and thus follow around anyone that nears them every morning around , or they’ve imprinted on me already.  After I feed these cackling chooks, Stu picks me up on the tractor to spread hay.  Peter (milking hand) had to take off early after milking, so it is just me on the trailor balancing between 6 bales of hay stacked higher than I am tall.  How am I going to cut the cord on these things without throwing myself off the tractor while trying to balance as we hit all the potholes and have cows mooing after me with hunger?

After a ton of farm chores compressed into 5 hours, at we take off and drive south to Paringa for a Hereford & Angus bull auction.  I’ve been thinking about this bull auction for the past week, hoping we’d go, having no idea what to expect.  The event was even more than I imagined!  I watched HUGE Hereford and Angus bulls get auctioned off for $3,000 - $6,500 dollars each, which is apparently lower than last year’s take.  The grandstands were filled with out 200 farmers, half of them in overalls and gumboots (muckboots), and the other half in jeans and boots.  I took oodles of pictures of all 36 different bulls, and eavesdropped on everyone’s conversations.  Apparently good traits for Hereford’s are panda eyes, clarity, white shoulders and throat, body length, good feet…

Learning about the merits of each bull is a science unto itself, and this beginner’s eavesdropping course I just took was decent.  These bulls were truly incredible beasts, almost like teenage boys, full of energy, budding strength, and constantly butting heads.  I got in the pens with them… when in the safe company of those more experienced than I.  The bulls are fearless, feared, and utterly fearful. 

After the auction there was a great barbecue and party of sandwiches, whitebait patties, juicy tender steaks, cakes, and beer, how awesome!  There were a few remarks questioning whether the steaks were of Hereford or Angus breed, but noone there could tell a lick of difference.  There wasn’t a soul that remotely considered leaving after their big purchase, as this annual event always goes late into the night with partying after the business is completed!  After raising a raucous for 5 hours or so, we decided to drive south 1 hour to stay the night with Stu’s friends, John and his daughter Katherine, who bought a new Angus bull at the sale.  I drive, as Stu had been throwing back the rum for a few hours.  After driving for 45 minutes, we finally passed our first car.  A total of two cars and two brushtail opossums were passed while en route  (NZ spells it ‘possom’, btw).  Unfortunately I hit the first possum, but the other was safe from my driving.  I tried to hold back the tears, but that was utterly pointless.

Day 14 (Sunday)
The entire house slept in this morning, the first time in 2 weeks waking up after – it was simply marvelous.  Got a 3 hour tour of 5,000 acres of John & Katherine’s developed and undeveloped farmland, where they are running beef cattle.  Ate spectacular blue cod (only found in NZ, visit NZ!) for lunch, drove 3 hours back to the Waitaha Valley, including passing through the glaciers at sunset.  Stu & I tried to capture the sunset over Franz Josef Glacier by running around dodging cars on a 1-lane bridge, but alas the photo did no justice to the beauty (click here for a better one!).  Oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues reflecting off of 10 kilometers of ice truly is spectacular.
Angus bulls
Stared down by Hereford bulls

Once we got back to the farm, we spread 3 bales of hay in the dark.  Imagine Stu driving a big tractor (who am I kidding, a HUGE tractor!) with a 5 foot high trailer attached.  As Stu drives, seemingly hitting every hole in the cobbled path, I brace myself between hay bales in an attempt to not get thrown off, while also trying to avoid sitting on the hay so it doesn’t go through my overalls and poke me in the rear.  While bouncing to and fro in the night, my attention inevitably gets distracted by the starry night.  Can I see the entire Milky Way?  Wow.
The cows are getting less and less grass each day this week, supplemented by hay, which is only filling but not nutritionally dense.  It is essential to cut back their grass quotidian to reduce milk production during the non-milking winter season.  With less energy received and their teats not stimulated, their milk production will taper off and their calories will be used for their own growth and development – and used for the growing calf within their uterus.  Same concept for humans.  The cows will not be milked again until August/September after they have all given birth.

On a side note… any beef purchased in a US grocery store is 100% grain-fed (i.e. nearly all corn).  Ruminants (cows, deer, goats, sheep…) have evolved to consume grass, not corn, and corn consumption wreaks havoc on their digestive system, nearly always requiring antibiotic treatment.  Unhealthy for you, and for the animal.  Do yourself a favor and buy grass-fed beef and other pastured meat from your local farmer’s market, read about it (author Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is great), find a farmer, be a healthy world citizen.  Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now; I could go for hours on this topic.

Day 15 (Monday)
Today has been an emotionally sick day.  I haven’t stopped crying.  My eyes burn. My nose hurts.  We’ve lost three cows from waking until sunset.  One last night was discovered in the paddock while spreading hay.  A calf was also found aborted this afternoon near a tree.  There are three dead cows and seven additional sick cows that are segregated from the herd, and I know there are others out there that are sick too, but the symptoms are not yet pronounced.  It feels like the apocalypse.

When we got in last night, it was too dark to notice that 5 cows had been brought into a small grassy area between the house and the milking shed by Peter, the milking helper.  No note, no messages.  All five were lying down (1 dead already), none looking well.  For Stu & I, it all started this morning.  We awoke to move the cows onto a grassier paddock and another dead cow was discovered, which brought the count to two after last night’s discovery.  Stu & I were asleep while she fought in agonizing pain, crawling her painful body through the grass.  We separated an additional 8 cows from the herd and brought them nearer the house.

MoonMist would be the next cow whose soul would part.  She never stood up the entire morning or afternoon, and her starting point in the day of semi-alert eyes and head held high diminished with the sun.  By her chin was nearly touching the ground, and without getting close to her, I knew she would not make it.  Actually, I thought she had already passed.  The other dead cow was only 25 feet away from her, her body heavy and teats bloated.  MoonMist, surely, was dead as well.  I approached her, and noticed her ear flick.  She was still alive!  Just barely.  As I got closer all I could hear was this poor beautiful beast moaning in horrible pain.  The audibility of her anguish made your chin tremble.  I rubbed her neck and talked to her.  There were many sick cows to tend to, including finding others in the herd that were losing their health.  Before I knew it, I was back at her side, sitting down next to her, scratching under her jaw, behind her ears, and on her forehead.
A large herd is not as conducive to intimate personal contact, whereas smaller herds get lots of human attention and become more like pets. Stu’s herd definitely qualifies as large, and many of his cows are moderately apprehensive of humans; one can rarely get within 6-10 feet before movement begins.    There are others that sniff you out, and use you as a scratching post within minutes though (some of my favorite girls).  MoonMist, however, moaned so heavily and loudly, that I ignored this often unsettling big-herd cow mentality, and assumed her the latter rub-against-you type.  Sitting down next to her, I held her massive head, talked and cried with her.  To me, my scratching alleviated her moaning a minute amount.  Not much, but enough to make a difference, and that’s all that mattered.  MoonMist passed away during the afternoon while I was inside making lunch.  I covered her eyes with grass leaves, and wept terribly by her side.

To cap the night off, Stu & I plucked four freshly-axed chickens tonight!  This was a definite first!  (Not so bad though, not like the deer…)  I learned firsthand about the expression, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”  Indeed that line is not a compliment to a sane person!  Plucking a chicken was not the worst thing I’ve ever done, and I’d be willing to do it again.

Day 16 (Tuesday)
Originally I had planned on leaving this morning to head to Nelson, but my head and my heart wouldn’t let me depart.  There are no other wwoofers here currently, and I feel like these animals need me for the extra day I have available.  We awoke to another dead cow, bringing the count to 4, and one very, very sick girl (“Little Gray”).  Little Gray held out through the afternoon, but her moaning by late morning gave away her fate.  Of the original 5 sick cows that were first brought in, three had passed by this morning, Little Gray made 4, and only one remained, Harriet.
RIP beloved Harriet
Harriet is known as the Queen of the Herd: very clever, aggressive eater (gets the seconds of the molasses at the end before coming in to be milked for her first helping), beautiful, won best 3 year old cow at the show this year, and overall a wonderful temperament.  If Stu had a pet cow, Harriet would be her.  Anyone that knows Stu’s herd, knows Harriet.
By mid-morning we had Harriet and the other four “less sick” cows in the milking shed to evacuate their sick udders of mastitis.  As you hand-milk their sick teats, you shake your head in sorrow.  These poor girls’s suffering is so hard to take.  Upon the vet’s recommendation: Remove all the curdled, milky, opaque and bloody fluids from the sick teats, inject with penicillin in teat, inject more in hip.  Jessie & Stu’s additional recommendations: Treat with love, patience and hope.  Get tissues to blow nose.  Little Gray was too weak to stand or walk to the milking shed, so I hand-milked her teats as she laid on the ground, then injected her there.  Get more tissues to blow nose.
By the afternoon, I needed some life in me.  I headed out to the 43 curious calves.  Played with those wonderfully inquisitive young girls for an hour or so, and went back to the house for afternoon lunch.  I could spend hours upon hours with their sweet, curious noses.

Laying down in the paddock amongst the calves
with my knees up, getting nuzzled!

After lunch I grabbed my camera and headed back to calves (predictably!).   I promptly laid down in the grass, and braced myself for swarming.  Within minutes I had my same flock of lovey girls hovering over me breathing hot grassy breath and prying their big eyes to my face!  Every time I spend time with the calves (10 months old), I feel invigorated and full of happiness and life.  They have this unabashed curiosity, which in some is diminished by shyness that often wears away after an hour or so.  Some of the girls are so outgoing, but unaware of their strength: Their attempts to rub against you can result in getting knocked off balance!  Every stumble—100% worth it!

After a few hours I wandered over to the big cow herd too; these cows range in age from 2 – 13 years.  From the less shy cows, I was promptly used as a scratching post for their nose, ears, forehead, crown, jaw…  The older girls are a little more knowledgeable of their size and strength, and they don’t push as much.  Kind of like dogs, though, they nudge your hand to encourage scratching!  One of the caramel-colored cows, “BM Regan,” took a liking to me and started boxing out all of the other cows from my vicinity.  She wanted me all to herself, followed me everywhere I walked, and just wanted me to touch and scratch her neck as much as possible.  I have never seen a cow hit heads with so many other cows in order to keep me to herself!  It feels good to be so wanted!
On my last day out with the big girls!
Day 17 (Wed, June 2)
The day of reckoning has come.  I have to leave; I cannot stay longer.  I’ve been dreading this day.  It’s been 2.5 weeks now on the farm that have been so amazingly memorable and rewarding that it is hard to summarize it all.
Before departure… After two fried farm eggs on toast, Stu & I it were off to get in some morning farm jobs: climb up on the tractor to spread two bales of hay for the big girls, call in the sick girls, assess, and treat.  Spreading hay in the same paddock that the cows are still in is always fun --- as you come in the gate (Stu driving, I’m on the trailor, standard), the tractor and trailor get swarmed.  Everyone wants what you have: Food!  While cutting the hay ties, the noses are up, mouths open to pull hay out of the tight bundles well before I’ve thrown down any slabs.  They follow you even after you’ve dropped several slabs of hay behind them, I guess thinking there might be ooey gooey molasses in the next slab?  It is hilarious and always pure entertainment.

We brought in the sick girls for additional hand-milking of their sick udders, assessment of who might live, or at least who might live through the day, and what more, if anything, could be done.

Naturally Stu & I spent a much longer amount of time with the sick girls than planned, .  There was a lot of rushing and running around to get me off the farm and to the bus stop, which of course was 45 minutes behind schedule.  Stu waved as the bus drove off, and my eyes overflowed with salty tears.  This farm in the Waitaha Valley of the Southern Alps had truly become my home for almost 3 weeks.  I felt at home there, and it was everywhere that I wanted to be.  I’ll never be able to forget this experience.

When a traveller returneth home let him not leave the countries where he hath travelled altogether behind him.
--Francis Bacon, essays, 1597-1625

New farm pictures: Bull Auction
Previously sent pictures: Welcome to the Farm

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