CONSIDER THE COW
CONSIDER THE COW
Consider the cow. Consider it, as I am, from across a small pasture — I wading through the clover and trying to avoid clumps of black manure, each one a terrible, nutrient-rich Frisbee covered with black flies; she, cow No. 66, standing with her wide black flank exposed to me. Her head is turned so I can see the enormous flat of her nose, the impossible depths of her nostrils, her jaw methodically working a load of cud. From a few yards away it seems she is regarding me as well, until I get close enough to look in her eyes. When I look into those onyx pools I see nothing, save for a reflection of myself. I grew up in the suburbs, so I don’t know much about cows. Or maybe I know more about cows than I do any other animal on the planet. Like most American children, I could recognize a cow, call it by name and shout out “Moo!” before I knew the alphabet. I know what cows eat and what they smell like even though I have never spent much time on a farm. If I ever heard one calling in the dark of night, I would know exactly what it was. And no matter where I stand in this entire nation, I know I am never too far from a cow. This big heifer I’m looking at right now, here in the pasture of the Bowman Dairy Farm and Highland Creamery, lives in Julian, perhaps 10 miles from my front door. My host, Chris Bowman, has just returned from dragging a hayride of elementary school children around the grounds with his John Deere. Now the kids eat ice cream at some picnic tables in the shade, pose for pictures behind a board with cute cow face holes cut out, practice milking on a cow facsimile named “Sally” made of lumber and a barrel with udders of hose. “Sally gets a workout almost every day,” Bowman says. He’s a sixth-generation farmer whose family has owned this herd since they changed over to dairy after their Greensboro chicken hatchery was destroyed by the 1936 tornado that tore down Lee Street. Now he’s got approximately 270 cows on the farm, with 148 of them in milk. “On a dairy farm we shoot for one calf per cow per year,” he says, “But we’re at about one every 13 or 14 months. We try to calve all year round.” One of the calves, coltish and spindly at two weeks old, scampers in a small pen near where the school children sit.
They’ll pet her nose and feed her from an oversize bottle before they get back on the bus. The calf, a Holstein born at about 100 pounds, has hip bones that stand out against her hide and a tag, No. 134, hanging from around her neck. Ironically, Bowman’s dairy calves don’t drink much actual milk. For the first three days, mother and calf are separated from the milk herd so the baby can ingest colostrum from the mother. “The calf gets plenty of antibodies and electrolytes like that,” Bowman says. Then the calf goes on a specially blended formula for the next eight weeks, while its mother’s milk will very likely be turned into ice cream. After six or eight months, the calf will be about 500 pounds, at which point it will probably gain a pound or two a day until it is nearly full-grown. At 18 months, Bowman says, she will weigh in between 900 and 1,100 pounds. “She’ll be exposed to the bull at that point,” Bowman says, and if she calves properly she will take her place in the milk herd. Bowman’s cows are direct descendants of the herd his grandfather tended in the early 1940s, which in turn can be traced back to the cows the Germans and Swiss brought to this part of the country when they came over from Europe in tall ships about 300 years ago. In this brave new world they were
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Chris Bowman’s dairy cows can be traced back to the herds the Swiss and Germans brought over from Europe in tall ships in the 17 th and 18 th centuries. (photos by Brian Clarey)