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Brown Cow, Down Cow; Up Cow, Pup’s Cow–The Rhythms and Rhymes of a Farmer’s Life

December 11, 2011

Often times, when Jason is hanging out with non-farmer friends, they ask him, “What do you do all day?” or “What is happening on the farm in this season?” (similarly, I get asked this question all the time…). In some ways, today, we are gaining back a collective, working knowledge of the labors of the farmer, which to our credit as a whole is contributing to a greater awareness of the needs of small-scale American farms and food policy and is linked to our deeper concern for what exactly we put into our bodies. Yet on the flip-side, unless a person has been or worked on a living farm, the life of a farmer can seem distant, mythical, other than that of most of our daily lives. It is true that many of us may not grind feed and make hay and plant corn and care for birthing cows on a regular basis, but I might surmise that the rhythms and rhymes of a farmer’s daily life is not actually that distant from many of our own in seemingly different professions. We all deep with the ups and the downs…

Take, for example, the recent (read mid-October through mid-November) consumption and joy of our farming efforts: a downed cow. What does it mean to be a “downed” cow? Well, literally (like most farmin’ language) it means that a cow is for some reason or another down on the ground and she can’t get up. “Downed” animals historically have dreaded fates. If a “downed” cow becomes a “downer,” this means her fate has come to an end. Downed cows may get up again. They may be treated, may be nurtured back to health. But once they are labeled a “downer,” it’s all downhill from there.

This time of year is calving season–the Bowmans have calves once in the fall (ranging from mid-October to mid-December) and once in the spring. So three times a day, morning, noon and night, Jason rides his truck through multiple fields to oversee his cows’ progress, to check for birthing signs, to help with any difficult births, and to welcome any newborns into the world with an ear tag labeled with his or her mother’s tag number (pink for girl, blue for boy–imagine that), “banding” or essentially the equivalent of “neutering” any male cows so they become steers and not bulls. Well, one morning in late October, Jason noticed something with one of the cows. She’s recognizable because she’s the only white cow on the farm. She was down, with her new calf standing next to her, and couldn’t get up. No matter what he did, including taking her calf and walking in the other direction, she wouldn’t move. This was a frustrating, sad day on the farm; the last thing any farmer wants to do is loose an animal. Jason brought the calf into the barn so that we could feed him with a bottle daily since he clearly wasn’t getting his mother’s milk. And he called the vet. And the vet came, but to no avail. The vet went through his gamut of possibilities and treatments–was she calcium deficient? Was she paralyzed? It was mentioned, in one or the other of a vet’s visit, that she may not be “salvageable.” Salvageable? This living creature is precious, blood pumping through her veins, motherly desire pumping through her brains…of course she is “salvageable!” So Jason began his almost three-week work of feeding her, morning and night, in the field, until he could lift her with a sling and a tractor to get her into the barn.

Jason feeding daily hay, grain and water to his downed cow in the middle of the field, with her calf in the barn.

After the quite-creative effort of building a kind of gurny, lifting the cow with the tractor, and toting her into the barn, she was given rest in a straw-bedded stall with her spirited steer calf. Weeks went by of cold mornings of rolling out of bed at 6am to ride in the ice-cold truck with NPR’s the Morning Edition playing while Wile excitedly stares dead ahead like farmer co-pilot in the middle seat between Jason and I. Weeks of mixing a milk replacement formula in a bottle, to just the right temperature so that the little steer would be able to eat. And weeks went by of Wile expectantly leaping from the truck and dashing into the barn and under the wooden door into the stall to find his little friend. Each morning that I would feed him, Wile would sneek underneath us and try to lick any drips of sweet milk that escaped from the calf’s hungry suckling. And when the steer had managed to squeeze out the very last drop, Wile would go about licking his face all over. Apparently, in her state of being “down,” mamma was unconcerned for the safety of her little one with Wile, and let the pup have the run of the joint as if he were yet another calf.

Mamma and calf in the barn


Little boy vigorously feeding


Daily care

Well, you’re wondering, what happened to her? What happened to the oddly white, downed cow with the little steer calf? Well, there are good days in farming, and I’m sure Jason would say that this girl was one of his good days. One of the days where you feel like all hope wells up inside you and gives birth to life. One morning, after more than a month of being down, we went into the barn to do the morning feedings. And what did we see? Well, a damn hilarious sight, that’s what! The cow was up on her two front legs, still sitting down on her back, up just enough for her calf to nurse! A sight if you’ve ever seen one! We could have jumped for joy! Progress! Healing! And to boot, in no less than a few more days, she was standing on both legs.

Now, the creamy gal and her little one live in the “orchard”–a small, fenced-in field near the barn where Jason can keep an eye on her, named so for the more-than-100 year old pear tree that spontaneously bore quite a yield in 2010 after not producing fruit for almost 10 years! This year, not a single pear on the tree. Huh. The mysterious cycles of life.

Wile in the manger guarding his herd

All to say, She’s UP! Down cow, Up cow! The experience also helped me to articulate to myself that, yes, farming is physical labor. It’s operating machinery (often spending more time fixing tractors in the than operating them–hence the beautiful marriage of farmers and mechanics that the Bowmans embody), it’s stacking hay and grinding feed and planting crops and fixing fence and doing math and calculating feed costs and selling to local farmers and supply stores. But it’s also linking your life to the life of that which you are cultivating. It’s fighting nature and death and loss every day, nurturing little slivers of creation that they might be the most alive that they can be, as well-stewarded as possible. Sometimes this includes cussin’ cows for breaking down your fence and tearing into your deep winter hay supply that you had neatly stacked, all while new bales of hay are laying in plain sight right in the field for their feasting. And sometimes this means believing that your downed cow will come around, if given enough time, enough care, enough fresh hay and water. It means that in the great circle of things, what goes down must come up.

Our "Up" cow and her calf in the orchard, with Wile making a morning visit to check on his little friend...

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 17, 2011 10:51 pm

    Good job, farmers!
    Farm management s very happy with Creamy’s upping and Wile’s new sibling.
    What goes down must come up – good to know 🙂

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