Everyday I learn a new trick to help me control the cows. My outstretched arm creates a magical barrier. My “hup” tells them to line up in the milking shed and a pat on the bum tells them to move up. The honk of the horn on the farm bike is a reminder that I’m in charge. It takes years to develop stockmanship, but sometimes it’s a simple matter of dropping into a full on sprint to get in front of her before she runs away.
The best way to learn anything is by messing up. If you want a cow to turn around, you can’t chase her down. I’ve tried zooming the two-wheeler between a couple of rouge cows and an electrified wire fence and ended up down in the mud with a bruised knee and a deflated ego. It’s much easier to jump the fence behind the cow and jump back over in front of her. Farmers would be great at track and field, if they ever had spare time.
I’ve learned that it’s better to let a few cows out of the paddock even if you only want one of them. But when I follow those guidelines during the next challenge, Digger tries to stop me before it’s too late. The rules are always changing.
Mate, it’s a mind fuck tryin’ to get inside the mind of a cow,” he said after we won a short victory over the mob.
We are three weeks into the calving season now, with anywhere from one to six fresh ones dropping every day. Digger and I have worked out a routine. Well, an outline of a routine that constantly changes according to what has gone wrong that morning. Every afternoon we have to gather the new-born calves from the paddock and bring their mothers to the shed for milking.
He’s been in charge of this farm for a little over two months and he is already well-acquainted with the troublemakers. He can easily recognize the brash cows who aren’t afraid of using their massive bodies to break the gate that’s been welded together three times and who will jump a fence even if they know they will get shocked.
Sixty-one there, she’s a bitch. A real slut cunt,” Digger says as we walk into the paddock.
Some cows come easily, while some put up a struggle. It’s all about their age.
The heifers, young female cows that haven’t calved yet, are the equivalent of 18-year-old girls, he says. They don’t really have a motherly instinct yet; they only care about themselves. Yesterday we couldn’t get a heifer to follow her calf so we had to chase her around until she was tired enough to walk out on her own, with the dignity of a free, independent woman. The older cows are much more likely to follow their babies out of the paddock and generally be cooperative. They have been doing this song-and-dance for a few years now and they don’t put up a fight.
They are also the ones who stop to moo and moan to their young when we take them up to the shed for milking. They just want to cuddle their babies but we force suction cups on their udders twice a day for eight months instead.
Interacting positively with the calves is very important. Teaching them to drink milk is a practice in patience, you can’t force them. A rough, short-tempered farmer can change a young cow’s perspective on humans forever. It doesn’t matter how you treat the bobby calves though. The males are loaded up into the bobby truck after three to four days. They are usually ground up for dog food or turned into a delicious veal steak.
It’s important to not fall in love with the animals. They are money makers, not pets. Especially when you are out to collect the calves and you find two dead being licked by their mums. They are called slinks, the still born. It’s an eery feeling dragging a rigid, cold calf out of the trailer on a dark night. It’s almost as disgusting as picking up afterbirth. Fortunately, the slimy blobs of blood and fat stick together surprisingly well.
I have learned a lot from Digger over the past six weeks, but there is no better teacher than being alone with the cows. Some days I have to bring the milkers to the shed by myself. First, I make sure the series of gates are in the right position before I let them out of their paddock. Then, I ride the two-wheeler down and let them out then slowly follow them, encourage the mob toward the milking shed.
Once they are in the yard, I have to make them line up probably in the shed, while keeping them calm. Cows can sense your temperament just as you can sense theirs. If their farmer yells and pushes aggressively, they will balk at your commands. You have to ask nicely and look at it from the cow’s perspective. At one point, I wanted to send three cows back into the yard and bring in three good milkers, that didn’t have any udder infections.
Cows don’t understand that their heads are attached to their bodies,” Digger’s words echo in my mind.
To turn a cow around, you can’t just push their bodies, they are way too big and they don’t care about you unless they can see you. I climbed around and pushed their noses back. It worked. They got the message and I felt like a cow champion with all the girls lined up nicely with no trouble when Digger came back to inspect my work.
I’m only here for a few months so I’m not going to pretend I’m a hardcore farmer who knows everything, but I’m learning the basics and getting by. I have also gained a new respect for real farmers. Just last night the outlook for dairy prices dropped again. New Zealand dairy farmers are enduring rainy days of frustration and agony, and the vast majority won’t even turn a profit this year. I have never met a group of people so dedicated to their lifestyle. Respect.