I can’t get the smell of cow piss and shit off my hands.
I worked on a 230-cow dairy farm for the first time today. It is about 5 minutes from the Hobbiton movie set and fuck me if it isn’t one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Rolling green hills sit next to the Kaimai ranges with long white clouds above which part only for a minute to reveal golden sunshine that blankets the fields. Light rain falls intermittently but I am too covered in cow excrement to care. I keep looking for sneaky barefooted Hobbitses but I haven’t found any yet.
I met the farmer last night. Digger, 21, works the entire farm by himself for most of the year besides calving and milking season which starts in about two weeks. What a badass life. He said his budget is really tight, so he won’t be able to pay me much but I don’t mind. I have been applying for WWOOFing. It stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, where volunteers work on a farm for 4-6 hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. I just want to get on a farm so I’ll pretty much do anything at this point.
I’m not sure where I found this urge to learn farming. I was about halfway through my working holiday in Australia when I realized I didn’t want to go back to the states. Americans only have working holiday agreements with 5 countries — Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Korea and Singapore — so the next logical step was to go to New Zealand. Only a three hour flight from Australia and they have many cultural similarities. I was growing tired of pulling beers, waiting tables and pretending to be nice to people so I knew I wanted to try something new. Where Australia has grown rich from its mineral exports, New Zealand is an agrarian country so I figured that would be the best place to find a job.
A quick vocabulary lesson:
- Paddock: A sectioned off field. Cows are moved from paddock to paddock on the farm depending on how much grass has grown and which spot is most convenient for the farmer.
- Heifers: Young female cows that haven’t had their first calf yet. They are crazy cunts and they aren’t comfortable being in the milking shed.
- Yard: The concrete area where the cows are pushed into where they congregate and shit and piss on each other before they are ready to be pushed into the milking shed.
- Milking Shed: This farm has a herringbone layout which means there is a pit about a meter deep with two rows of cows on either side. The milker stands in the pit to put the milking suction cups on the utters on the cows that have their asses right in your face on either side so you are in a constant danger of being covered in projectile liquid shit and high powered piss.
- Lane: The bumpy road that connects the paddocks to the yard. Once you open a gate of a paddock, the cows will slowly but surely follow each other down the road. At first a walk, then a slow trot then sometimes a full on stampede.
- Draft: Separating and sorting the cows that are calving soon from those that aren’t.
- Gumboots: The almost-knee-high waterproof rubber boots worn by most farmers.
After one day on a farm, I’m in love. It’s even better than I expected. I helped Digger draft his cows today. He picked me up in his mud and shit covered 1990 4WD Sierra jeep and took me to his farm. We went straight to the paddock with his heifers. The two-wheeler farm bike was parked next to it. First task of the day was teaching the greenhorn how to ride. Digger basically just told me how to change gears and where the clutch, gas and breaks are.
“Awright, give it a go.”
I didn’t really look where I was going as I was too focused on trying to go forward. I nearly took out an electrified wire fence which was about 10 meters in front of me but I was able to stop the bike and not fall off. A miracle. There’s something special about riding an offroad bike around a muddy farm in New Zealand. Probably one of the most badass things I’ve ever done. After I got a hang of the bike, we had to make sure the gates in the yard and milking shed were opened and closed accordingly before the cows are let into the lane.
My job was to drive the bike up the end of the lane and make sure the cows go into the yard while Digger took up the rear with his truck. The only experience I’ve had with cows by this point in my 24 years is doing solo day hikes around Ireland and coming face to face with gangs of cows that gave me pretty fearsome stare downs. Honestly, I was kind of terrified of them. And now I have over 100 cows running straight for me and I’m supposed to tell them where to go and the only other person on the farm is on the other side of these cows. I see them start to run toward me and I’m trying desperately to pull the motorbike out of the way but it fell over and now I have to pick it up and damn it is heavy and here they come now.
They see me and they stop dead in their tracks. I have no idea what I’m doing. I clap. I yell. I bend at the knees and pat my hands on my thighs like I’m beckoning a dog. I do the third-base-coach-turn-into-home motion but they don’t play baseball. I start walking and skipping up to the yard. Eventually the cows get the idea and they run up into the yard. Except for about 10 stragglers.
I thought I was the king of the cows but they all of the sudden they all turn around and stampede back down the lane and now I bet Digger thinks I’m the worst farmhand ever because I can’t keep the cows in one place but then he drives up and honks his horn and they come back. Phew. These are heifers, Digger explains, so they have never been in the milking shed before so be careful, they are unpredictable. It’s a constant struggle but he manages to get the first lot into their neat little rows with all their asses hanging off the railing and all their piss and shit flops down into the pit right where I’m supposed to stand and pull the shit covered lever which opens the gate to let through a few cows at a time so Digger has time to sort out the ones he has spray painted which means they have big utters which means they will drop their little baby cows soon and they want to all run out at the same time so it’s difficult to close the gate but Digger says you just have to shut it real quick right in front of their big dumb heads and that will scare them and they will jump back and he was right.
We get one mob through and then Digger has to get in the yard and push them all forward. I’m standing in front of the milking shed and Digger tells me to stand off to the side so that I don’t scare them because they don’t like Americans. One of the cows gets spooked and shoves her head through the gate and manages to fit her whole body through and she bends the lever that brings it up and down. That cow is a fucking gay slut cunt because Digger just fixed that gate two days ago and now he has to fix it again. Now the gate is broken so all the cows run through and I’m told to let them go because they might break something else. Fucking heifers.
Next we bring in the old veterans. I take the truck and he takes the bike and we drive down and open up the gate and let them walk up to the yard. I take up the rear and by the time the last cow is in the yard the rest are all ready neatly lined up in the cow shed. These old ladies know this game. They listen to the guy who has been feeding them and milking them and taking care of them.
After all the cows have been drafted and are happy and in their appropriate paddocks it’s time to hose down the yard. I can’t believe how much water is used to clear out the extreme amount of delicious pies and soups the cows left for us. And during milking season this is done twice a day. What a terrible waste of water. Oh well this is how it’s done. I’m a greenhorn so I shouldn’t question anything.
We’ve been working for about 5 hours now and since I’m not really getting paid it’s time to go for a feed. We get a big bucket of KFC and then Digger says he will buy me a new pair of Gumboots to cover my wages for the day and I think that sounds great because I actually had a lot of fun today and I learned a lot. I don’t want to leave. I want to live on the farm. I want to walk outside and be among the cows and shit and piss and hills and clean air. But he can’t pay me until milking starts because the farm owner is a tight ass even though he is a millionaire who own this dairy farm, a goat farm, a farm supply store in town and a bunch of other shit.
Today was more fulfilling and satisfying than any day I have ever worked in a god damn office job. Answering emails and attending office meetings is the most depressing thing I’ve ever done compared to moving two groups of cows through a milking shed and sorting them and chasing cows on a farm bike and nearly falling face first into a bit slippery pile of muddy shit. This is what I want to do and if you told me that two years ago when I was a little kid graduating from James Madison University I would tell you to go get fucked.