Other People’s Cattle
I lease out my fields to another man’s cattle. I have fields and grass and he needs the grass. The time is the end of March. March 24th to be exact. The man turns his cattle onto my upper field pasture. March arrives like a lion and creeps out on little lamb’s feet.
Calves are again being born on the ranch. The mud tries to dry up, and then Mother Natures dumps buckets of water on the ground. The mud becomes the consistency of wet cement. This black gumbo will grow anything but is treacherous soil. This soil can kill as well as grow.
I spend one day and most of the night nursing a sick calf that “bogged’ down in the mud by the feeding pens. Usually the mothers are smart enough not to bring their babies up to the feed lot. This baby didn’t listen very well to the mama cow. The past few days had been warm and wonderful so “Why listen to your mama.” thinks the baby calf.
I had to get my Morgan horse to help pull the baby out of the mud. I dropped a loop on the baby by climbing off the horse and slipping the rope around the back legs of the calf. The Morgan horse does the work and pulls the calf out of the mud.
Naturally that night, Mother Nature throws a monsoon of water down from the skies. The baby gets pneumonia. I bring the calf down to the house, warmed him up and watch him die. Death is so difficult to cheat once he makes his mark on a living being. The next day repeats itself. Another calf is lost.
I am very tired of the cattle business…mine or someone else’s business. Needless to say we move the cattle to another field. The grass isn’t really up yet, but the man leasing the fields cannot stand to loose another calf. I cannot stand to watch them die in my kitchen either.
Today we attempt to “graft” two new babies onto the mother cows. We move the mothers into a close small pasture with no mud. One cow takes her new calf, but the other mother is not interested in raising a child that is not hers. I personally “thank God” that I am not learning all this information with my cattle. I find learning so much easier to acquire new knowledge with someone else’s cattle. At least I am being paid to learn with another man’s cattle.
Never again do I drive by fields of cattle and envy the “rich” rancher. Every cow, bull, calf and steer represents hours of hard labor and some deaths of calves or cows. There is a high hidden mortality rate in the domestic animal world. No wonder ranchers and farmers all jump to the sales pitch of the wonder drug salesman. No one likes to loose an animal. Yet at the same time, I ponder the futility of it all. I struggle to keep these cattle alive only to sell them to be killed and eaten in their future.
I meet a most remarkable woman. I meet her because her daughter, Jenny, and my daughter, Sarah, become friends in school. She is about thirty-two years old. Her name is Donna and she moved form Belmont, California seventeen years ago. She and her husband own a dairy farm. Donna and her daughters run the farm. They own fifty five head of cattle. These cows MUST be milked twice a day…every day of the year. Donna milks five at a time with an automatic milking machine. She milks at eight in the morning and then again at eight at night. It takes her five hours from start to finish doing the entire herd. She puts in ten hours of work a day every day. I must add that Donna is also raising three daughters. I stand in front of her and I am so impressed.
The dairy herd must be fed. All the dairy calves must be bottle raised by hand. I think about Donna every time I drink a glass of milk. I think I am busy with thirty cows out in the fields that are raising (or trying to rise) their own cow children. I am not even milking the cows.
Donna tells me.
“Ron and I milked all the cows by hand the first five years of the dairy farm. We could not afford the milking machines.”
I learn that in the mid 1980’s not all farms and ranches are high tech.
Donna and I visit while she works. I help her best that I can. I learn that I love to pressure wash the holding pen after the cattle move into the milking parlor. The milking parlor contains ten stalls on two levels. The five cows walk to their OWN stanchion to be milked. Feed waits for them on their own plate. Each cow knows the order of their place and almost always goes to its own pen. The head gate is closed and the cow’s udder is washed carefully. The suction tubes of the milking machine are applied to each of the four teats of the cows. While the cow munches on her grain, she is milked. When the five cows are finished, then the next five are ready. There is a steady rhythm of gates closing, cows munching and milking machine throbbing.
The holding pen is made of roughed up flooring and tile walls. While the cows are waiting the pen is liberally “painted” with liquid and soft manure. My job is to pressure wash the walls of the holding pen when the last cow goes into the milking parlor.
I have known idea why I like this job. I don’t care why I like the job. I suit up in rain yellow construction rain gear and turn on the large pressure washer and go at the job. I start with the fifteen foot ceiling. Yes there is cow manure on the ceiling too. That bit of artistic work is done with the flick of the cow’s tail as the wonderful manure is still plopping out of the cow.
I then hit the sides of the walls. Top down…then bottom up. The floor is nest. I can wash the holding pen in about an hour. Washing the pen occurs twice a day. The slurry of water and manure goes to a septic system and is latter pumped into a truck and then onto the pastures and hay fields. The fields produce the feed for the cattle and the cattle produce the fertilizer for the fields.
As I watch all this and occasionally visit with Donna as her milk, I know that I am very fortunate because I am convinced I am partaking in the very last glimmer of a lost yesterday. The life a little farmer will be gone forever in twenty years. Small farmers just cannot make a living in this high tech world. What the high tech world looses is people like Donna who know how to make ah honest and decent living for herself and her young family. Their home is not fancy. Their wood stove warms their family like my wood stove warms Sarah and me.
While feeding hay out of the barn on a winter afternoon, Donna and I compare calf deaths. We are both saddened by that terrible, powerful moment when the light in their eyes goes out…never to return.
“The light is the same with people too.” We both agree. Little do we know what the terrible future holds for us?
“When you watch a person die or see a person in death, their light is gone forever.” Says I.
“That light is never to be called back by anyone or anything.” I continue.
One of my very best experiences at the dairy farm is when Ron is holding a birthday party in the milking barn. I am sitting on the steps win a cotton dress eating my birthday cake. As one of the cows walks out of the barn by the steps, she deftly lifts her tail and dumps wet hot cow poopie down my back. We all laugh hysterically. Fortunately for me there is a shower in the milking parlor rest room. I stay in the dress and take a very long hot shower. Also fortunately for me, Ron’s birthday is in July and it is a hot summer night. I go back to the party clean and wet, but never sit on the steps again.
When you sit in a hay barn on a cold wet spring night and talk about death juxtaposed to life and the hard work it takes to raise a family…plus to care for all the domestic animals and crops too…I become aware that food does not come easily to grocery counters. Food comes from the great sweat and toil of people we seldom know.
People with cattle start to call me to help them out. I meet many small farmers and ranchers became of my work at the sale yard.
A neighboring rancher calls on Saturday to help push cattle up into the back hills. The grass in the foothills is starting to grow in this cold wet spring time. I am late in joining the cattle drive. Of course they had already left when I pull in with Morgan horse, truck and trailer.
Rule one…never be late to work.