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let's talk farm animals

City girl cum milkmaid learns dairy cow realities

By Leslie Ballentine, Farming and food commentator

We tend to have a romantic vision of farming and farm animals. As this former city girl points out, that storybook vision isn’t always reality.


DATE:  2021.03.30


SECTION:  Globe Life

Facts & Arguments: THE ESSAY Tales from the dairy barn

I’ve learned one vital truth in progressing from scraper of poop to bona fide milkmaid: Cows are dumb

Although I have fond childhood memories of playing in haylofts and patting calves on farms near my father’s log 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.

My husband and I moved north from Waterloo, Ont., to Bruce County about a year ago. Before that, we spent weekends at the cottage he shared with his brother, and put in many happy hours helping with milking duties at the family farm up the road.

My husband worried I’d be bored and lonely in the country, but that’s not the case. There is a simple joy in preparing a guest bedroom for visitors, or wandering down the lane to see if our mailbox contains any plump letters - real letters, on paper, with stamps - pleasures I would not have experienced had we stayed in Waterloo.

And who could be lonely when surrounded by such a loving, close-knit set of in-laws, especially when they introduce you to the mysteries of dairy farming? Over the past few years, I’ve progressed from being the girl in the ill-fitting coveralls who’s constantly in the way to confident scraper of poop and feeder of cats. Last year, I graduated to the status of bona fide milkmaid. I knew I’d reached the pinnacle of my dairy career last fall when I was allowed to assist my in-laws with morning milkings for five days after my mother-in-law hurt her foot.

I could go on at length about all the interesting things I’ve learned while doing the milking - how to push a grain cart without dumping it in the barn gutter, how to avoid a nasty spatter of calf poop, why it’s important to remove your wedding ring before going to the barn - 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 animal guru. She maintained that all animals had an innate wisdom and, with the right training and a little patience, could be taught to do anything. I loved reading about how she’d saddle up her Jersey cow and ride it through the English countryside.

As a result of my Woodhouse education, I thought cows would have a 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 tank would overflow whenever I was around. While I didn’t necessarily want to saddle the Holsteins and ride them down Concession 4, I was sure we’d develop a connection.

Then came the poo-covered tail in the face of reality: Cows aren’t smart at all. Many of them seem downright dumb. I’ve decided that cows, valuable creatures though they are, were put on earth to test the patience of inexperienced milkmaids and even hardened dairymen.

I’ve seen a seasoned cow come lumbering out of the pen, udder 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’m not quite 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 soy milk.

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 udder, she kicks. Once, as my brother-in-law was grimly teaching me how to outfit The Kicker with her red “anti-kick” strap, I asked him why he didn’t just use cow psychology. 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 repeat his response here, but suffice it to say I don’t ask about cow psychology any more.

Still, I suspect there may be a million-dollar business lurking behind that 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.

Kimberlee Feick Lowry lives in Point Clark, Ont.

Until the next BLOG.



Posted by OFAC on September 14th, 2011 :: Filed under Animal care,Dairy cattle,Farm life,Urban Myths
Tags :: , , ,
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