My cows and me

My whole life, I’ve had cows. They’ve taught me many things and shaped who I am now.

Milking cows on the family farm.

I grew up on a farm, and in the early days our cows were milkers, they were tame and handled twice a day. I helped with the milking from age six, when I used to get up before dawn and ride my bike to the farm while my grandparents still lived there. I’d milk the cows on frigid winter mornings, then grandma would reward me with a hearty breakfast before I rode back home then went to school. In the afternoon I’d make the trip again after school.

My favourite job was hosing down the yard when the milking was done. Tall, steamy round cow pats were blasted away with a few swift strokes of the high-pressured hose (which I could barely hang on to at that age!).

Every cow had a name. Every cow had a personality and a story.

My sister and I with Lucinda.

Among the herd of 80 or so cows there were some clear favourites – they each had unique traits and faces. Suzie was a short, old cow who walked slowly, trailing behind the herd every time we yarded them up for milking. Erica always had to be milked in the second milk-bay from the end. Lucinda was tall and slow and when I was around 12 years old my sisters and I used to plait reins out of hay-baling twine and ride her and another cow, Betty, around the paddocks.

Petting my beloved Erica.

Dad propping up tiny me on Suzie’s back before she’s milked.

My sisters and I hand-raised calves and lambs. We learned responsibility and long-term commitment when we convinced my dad to let us keep calves and raise them all on our own instead of taking them to the market.

Early on, we were introduced to the incredible bond humans can form with animals and the heartbreak when they are lost. The farm background means I’ve experienced the death or separation of much-loved animals and pets far more than your average Joe, but I can tell you it never gets easier.

Grandma and I feeding the calves.

In the year 2000, milk prices were so low we could no longer keep the dairy running. Our farm switched to beef cattle and ours were always the quietest, gentlest animals at the market after my sisters and I continued to pet them almost every day. Those first few years of beef grazing were hard – bonding with young steers and heifers, watching them being raised by their mothers, then the inevitable pain when they were trucked away to be sold at a market. It never stopped me bonding with the new season’s calves though!

There was a particularly rough two years on the farm when we experienced lots of calving problems leading to the death of either calf or mother or both. Of the calves that survived and that we were rearing by hand, most died in a single outbreak of scours (an infection with diarrhoea). The unseasonably wet weather and surplus in green grass caused cows to die of milk fever in the days after giving birth – a horrible death caused by calcium depletion leading to paralysis. This period of time was an immense source of stress, anxiety and depression for all members of my family, who were dealing with the grief on sleepless nights after too often staying up with a birthing cow or nursing a dying calf. I learned persistence through spending 7-8 hours at a time with my dad pulling calves from cows who’d given up pushing. I learned the importance of family supporting each other through a long and desperate time of grief, angst and uncertainty. Together, we made it through and things improved again.

My sister and I with one of our hand-reared calves.

When I was sixteen I was interested in farming and cattle raising, and I took a friend’s young cow to a show. On exiting the show ring a velcro strap was torn from around my arm by an organiser which spooked my cow, young Denise. I was dragged across a road and broke my leg. Denise gathered a man up with her head and threw him against a large bin, giving him head injuries. When she was finally caught and tethered, everyone avoided her and treated her like a wild beast and she stood alone, shaking and frightened. It broke my heart. I couldn’t soothe her because she was terrified of the crutches I was using. I learned the misunderstanding that humans often have when they don’t know the full story about someone or something.

These days I am much less involved with our cows. I moved away for a couple of years and I became a slave to university and books instead of working the farm. But going outside and seeing the cows, petting them, sitting in the paddock until the curious young calves gather in a circle around me, daring each other to be the first to touch me, then lick me… this contact still is such a source of joy. Friends who have never seen cows up close are amazed and delighted when introduced to these soft creatures.

Have animals shaped you in any way? I look forward to hearing your stories in some comments!

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