How Cowspiracy made me go vegan

I never thought a documentary could convince me to change my lifestyle.

One week ago, I attended a lecture about the unsustainability of climate change and then watched Cowspiracy on Netflix.

In one night I learned that the global temperature is expected to rise by two degrees Celsius from 1995 to 2100 and the No. 1 contributor to climate change is agriculture and livestock and the easiest, most cost effective, healthiest, health-care saving way to save the world and prevent cardiovascular disease is to just eat plants.

For the first time in my life I am free of meat, dairy and eggs and it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

Why did I switch to a vegan diet?

Just like Cowspiracy producer Kip Andersen, I always thought the main contributor to climate change was fossil fuels. Not even close.

All global transportation — including road, rail, air and marine — accounts for 13% of global greenhouse emissions. Livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions.

Do you take shorter showers and switch the tap off when you brush your teeth? Thanks, but that burger you’re eating used 660 gallons of water. Private homes account for 5% of water consumption in the US. Meanwhile, 55% is used for animal agriculture.

Raising livestock takes up a crazy amount of land. The current livestock system occupies 45% of global surface area. To do this, we have to cut down trees. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of Amazon deforestation. We are destroying the Earth’s lungs in order to eat meat and drink milk.

Cows are terribly inefficient. An average milking dairy cow drinks between 30 and 50 gallons of water, eats around 33 pounds of dry matter and produces 120 pounds of wet manure every day. Why don’t we just grow food for humans instead of going through the worst middleman ever?

Our current addiction to meat and dairy is not sustainable. The UN projects the global population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. We don’t have enough room for all of those people to eat meat and dairy.

A vegan needs just 1/6th acre to produce enough food for a year. A meat eater needs 18 times as much land, for a more expensive and unhealthy diet.

I made this change for the environment. Veganism means living in the future. In a future with more people, higher global temperatures, more global inequality and more greenhouse gasses, veganism is the easiest and most sustainable option.

Well, shit, why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?

Lobbyists.

Cowspiracy shows how nearly every environmental non-profit is eerily silent on the effects of animal agriculture.

Here’s a taste:

The dairy lobby, the meat lobby, and the incredibly powerful prescription drug lobby want us to keep eating animal products and, in turn, destroy the Earth and kill ourselves. They don’t want these environmental charities to be spouting off the truth about the cause of climate change. They want to make money.

As Bill Maher said on his HBO program, “There’s no money in healthy people, and there’s no money in dead people.”

The money, he says, is in people with chronic conditions who eat fast food and take prescription drugs everyday of their lives. If everyone ate plants, everyone would be healthy. That’s not good for business.

You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’ve never worked on a farm!

Over July and August of this year, I worked on a 230-cow dairy farm just down the road from the Hobbiton movie set in the heart of Waikato, New Zealand.

Out in the paddock.
Out in the paddock.

On my first day on the farm I had to hose down the massive amount of shit and piss the cows left in the shed. I was shocked by how much water I had to use. It takes about 5-10 minutes running a high-powered hose to clean the shed after milking. Every other day we had to hose down the entire yard, which took at least 15 minutes. I was told to not worry about it.

This is the standard practice done on every farm, after every milking, twice a day. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. Is it worth it?

During calving, the newborn are throw into the trailer and taken back to the shed while the mothers follow, wanting to nourish and care for their young. The most heart-breaking moment is when the cows are led up to the shed for milking. They moo and yell to their children, who are confined in a crowded pen. They want to be together. I’m sorry, but we need protein.

Our first calf, getting some love from mom.
Our first calf, getting some love from mom.

All of the cows and heifers are impregnated so they can lactate. We had around 200 calves. About 30 of the calves were kept on the farm as replacements. The other 170 were sent away in the “bobby trucks” were they would either be chopped up for dog food or fattened up for a few months and then sold as veal. We need protein.

Yeah, what about protein? Don’t you feel malnourished?

When I used to lift weights, my diet was mostly meat, dairy and whey. There’s no protein in plants, I always thought.

Ha. In the past week I have been astonished to learn that nearly every plant has protein. Then there are super foods, ancient grains and multipurpose cereals.

All of these contain protein: Broccoli, spinach, peas, sweet potato, soybeans, soy milk, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, whole meal flower, nut butters, hemp seeds, chia seeds, linseeds, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, bean sprouts, tofu, tempeh, edamame and kale.

I’ve been eating plants for a week and I don’t feel malnourished. I actually feel better than I ever have.

My skin is glowing. My stomach is happy. My brain has more power. I feel more awake. My sinuses feel more open. My poop has been a thing of beauty. My body is working better in every way. I can feel it.

Still not convinced? Check out this list of vegan athletes.

Was it difficult to completely change my diet overnight?

It was incredibly easy. The morning after watching Cowspiracy, I tipped out my milk and gave away my cheese, butter, ham and salami. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Every meal I’ve cooked since then has been fun and exciting. I made curry for the first time ever. Throw a bunch of vegetables in a skillet with a bit of oil, add curry paste and coconut cream and eat over jasmine rice. Amazing.

I made ramen with organic noodles containing 12 grams of protein per serving. I never thought noodles could have protein. Add some tofu, steamed veggies a hoisin sauce and it’s the bomb.

Even before this transition I ate vegetables nearly every night, but now I am thinking outside the box. I’m no longer just throwing a pat of butter in a pan and adding veggies and meat. I can’t wait to learn new recipes and experiment with different spices, cuisines and techniques.

You’re just a fucking hippie! Get a job, eat meat and shut up!

I do have a job, thank you very much. I fold sheets and towels, clean the kitchen and slice the bread every afternoon in exchange for accommodation at a beautiful hostel in Nelson.

That doesn’t count, does it?

You’re right. I’m a bearded, yoga-practicing, pot-smoking, anti-capitalist-writing, Dr.Bronner’s-for-everything vegan, traveling around New Zealand in a 1987 Mitsubishi campervan.

And I couldn’t be happier.

But, seriously, man. What’s next? Barefeet? Actually I have been walking barefoot around the hostel and the park for the past couple of days and my calves and feet feel so much stronger and I feel like I am walking more naturally than I have in years.

Oh Jaysus. Just don’t grow dreadlocks.

No one else is vegan. You’re going to be forever alone.

During my first three days of vegan cooking, people in the hostel observed me and asked what I was doing.

Matias, from Uruguay, and Angela, from Argentina, were speaking ultra-fast Spanish as I sliced tempeh.

“Sean, is that cheese?” he asked me in English.

It’s fermented soybeans I tell him, lots of protein. This was my first time cooking with tempeh so I had no idea what to expect when I put it in the skillet. I added some soy sauce and sweet thai chili and, god damn, it was so tasty.

The next day I joined the South American table with a heaping plate of brussel sprouts, mushrooms, tomato and tofu. They all examine me.

“Porque, Sean?… What about vitamin B12?… Necesitas carne,” the girls interrogate me.

I don’t know! I just started doing this I don’t know what I’m doing or anything about vitamin B12!

Giovanni from Italy looks at my plate.

“Chickpeas, broccoli, cabbage… Are you vegetarian?”

“Vegan,” I reply.

“You poor guy.”

And then I met John.

I brought a joint into the smoke-O room on Friday night to share my favorite plant. Around midnight at the hostel, everyone who wants to keep drinking has to go into town. As the exodus began, I started talking to John. After a half-hour, everyone was gone and we were still talking not giving a fuck about what anyone else was doing.

He has thick-rimmed glasses and shaggy ginger hair. He wears linen pants and a loose fitting red collared shirt. He is from England and we both manage to squeeze in, “man,” into every sentence.

I started telling John about Bernie Sanders, because that’s what I do. I was explaining his platform when all of the sudden it clicked for both of us. Bernie is the American Jeremy Corbyn. An old-school leftist, populist politician who sticks to what he believes in and knows that his way will bring prosperity and peace to the people.

Then I asked if he’s seen Cowspiracy.

“No, but I’ve heard of it. Why, are you a veg?” John asked as he smiled.

“I’ve been vegan for three days,” I said

Instant best friends. He’s been a vegetarian for two years and has been vegan for three months, ever since he couldn’t finish eating a slice of pizza in Auckland. We talked about how much better the body feels on a plant-based diet. He said his acne vanished once he dropped meat.

The following evening, we had a little dinner date and now I’m sure everyone thinks were gay. Nope, just vegan.

He showed me one of his go-to meals. Cauliflower, onion, chickpeas and tomato sauce with fresh spinach wrapped in a tortilla served with wedges.

We ate a lot and talked about what we couldn’t recall from our conversation last night. I felt so full afterwards.

He said when he used to eat meat he would want to put his head down and rest after such a meal. But on a plant-based diet, he has never felt sluggish. If you eat a lot of plants, you’ll just a have a really good poop later.

The next day I showed him the vegetable green curry I was cooking. We are both staying at this hostel for a few months, so we will have plenty of time to share recipes and ideas.

It’s so good to have someone to share this with.

You’ve only been vegan for one week. You won’t stick with it.

I realize seven days is not a lot of time to really gauge how this will affect me. But I don’t see any reason why I would ever go back.

When I walked through the meat section of the grocery, I felt a sudden burst of anxiety. I felt bad that I ate these products for so many years without a second thought. I quickly moved on and picked out oranges, bananas, broccoli, onions, capsicum, carrots, cabbage, muesli, quinoa, linseed, curry paste, coconut cream, organic brown sugar, psyllium husk, tofu and sultanas.

I really don’t think I can eat dairy or meat or eggs ever again. I can’t do it. Something has clicked inside of me.

It’s easy to do this living at a hostel with a kitchen and a health-food store in town. The real struggle will be from going out to eat with friends and family and having to make sure everything is free of animal products. I’ll have to talk to every waiter and read every ingredient when I shop.

I’m not a true vegan, however, because most of my clothing is merino wool. This is going to be a much more difficult transition. I’m a budget traveler and I don’t own much clothing. My socks, underwear, top and bottom base layers, sweater, t-shirt, singlet and gloves are all wool. A few weeks ago, I bought $300 leather hiking boots. I would be naked if I gave up my animal clothing. I posed this question to the vegan subreddit and they said I shouldn’t worry about it, just replace it over time. Phew, at least they won’t look down on me for not being pure.

One person going vegan isn’t going to change the world.

My generation is different. My generation has the Internet and Netflix.

At the time I watched it, Cowspiracy was at the top of the “Popular on Netflix” queue. Then there’s, Forks over Knives and Food Matters, both very convincing scientific accounts of the benefits of a plant-based diet. If you want to be disgusted by how humans treat other animals, watch Earthlings.

People are watching these documentaries and becoming interested in how to live better lives.

My generation cares about the world. We are tired of extreme inequality and careless disregard for the Earth. With President Bernie Sanders, we will start a revolution. We will reverse climate change and reduce poverty and humans will become happy animals living in balance with the world we share with so many others.

All we need is information and social media.

Everyone has to do something.

I can’t pretend to be an ethically-grounded, environmentally-conscious human and writer if I’m eating eggs for breakfast, sliced ham for lunch and 300 grams of neatly packaged boneless, skinless chicken thighs with a glass of milk for dinner.

This is such an easy thing to do and if everyone puts in a small amount of effort, we can shift the way people view animal products.

The truth is, meat and dairy production is killing the world. And it’s killing humans. And it’s killing animals.

We don’t need it. All we need is plants. We can live very happy and healthy lives on vegetables, legumes, grains and cereals. It’s so easy. Grow stuff in the ground and eat it. It’s cheaper, easier and healthier than raising livestock. And it doesn’t involve torture and pain.

We have to live like it’s 2100 or 2200. We can’t just live until the next election cycle. Live in the future, be vegan.

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Farm Frustration

There are bright, sunny days where everything is smooth and I let the cows over the road crossing and drop the tape gate in perfect time for Digger to ride through on the two-wheeler with his aviator sunglasses and we feel like badass, bearded lords of the cows.

Then there are days like today when I lose count of how many times I yell fuck.

It started going downhill once I maneuvered the tractor down a hill into the paddock with the milking cows, ready to feed out the load of grass and maize. As I start the routine, I realize that everything is wrong.

One of the farm owner’s lackeys took the tractor into town yesterday and attached all of the hydraulic plugs into the wrong sockets when he brought it back. I’m no expert when it comes to farm machinery, in fact I’m pretty useless. I do what I can and use trial and error to get the door to raise, the chains to move and the blades to rotate, but I can’t figure out the latter.

I ring Digger and he tells me to drive the tractor to the cow shed and he will take a look at it. Really, man? I know you’re my boss but that is no simple task. I have to squeeze through three narrow gates — jumping out before and after to open and close — and up three hills.

I forgot I was in third gear and I stalled out going up the hill in the paddock. I back up and try again, but then I’m too close to the gate to make the sharp turn. Then I bumped the fence post and pushed the heavy gate off of its hinges, which I would later spend five minutes and five expletives trying, and failing, to lift back in place. I reverse and make a wide loop to approach the turn at a more favorable angle. Then I make the same mistake and underestimate a smaller hill and stall out and roll back down and nearly take out an entire fence.

Oh yeah, and this is the paddock by the road so everyone driving by — mostly farmers — are making fun of the idiot who doesn’t know how to drive a tractor.

I finally make it to Digger and he fixes the problem in a matter of seconds. He tells me to make sure I spread out the feed evenly this time. You always do it too thick, he says. Great. Now I have to drive back down to that paddock and open the gates and close the gates. Then spread the feed. Then drive back to the shed and open the gates and close the gates.

Eventually I make it back and have to feed the calves. Digger still hasn’t set up the big calf feeder with the trailer — it’s been “on the To-Do list” for two weeks now — so I have to carry 12 twenty-liter buckets of milk over to the calf pens everyday and try not to spill much on my overalls or on the ground. There is one calf feeder that is too fast and one that is too slow and the calves — growing stronger and fatter everyday with the massive servings of protein — constantly push and shove, jockeying for position. It’s an impossible task to get them all to drink the same amount and if I mess something up, they could die.

And he hasn’t given me any Colostrum milk — the “liquid gold” produced just after birth that is essential for new-born calves — in over 24 hours so I feed the babies the regular calf milk, which apparently makes him liable for a $200,000 fine, because it contains penicillin, if they are collected by the bobby truck. They are randomly tested for antibiotics and he decides he will take the odds. Strange, I didn’t take him for a gambling man.

Eventually we meet up for a team huddle and I tell Digger that everything went wrong this morning. He said he’s had a good one too. The heifers escaped and scattered all over the farm. He had to collect them and walk them back in groups of two.

Digger always seems to handle problems calmly. I’ll be sweating bullets and yelling fuck because the cows jumped a fence and I’m trying to keep them off the road and George rocks up and says, “Ahh, yeah, did they pull a sneaky on you? I bet it was number 12.”

He’s used to this and I’m not. He says farming will give you a whole new level of patience. You just have to accept that shit happens. You have to bottle it up and let it go. That’s why he smokes.

His response reminded me of the interviews with inmates in solitary confinement I watched last night during a New York Times video binge.

George Franco — who spent 20 years in the shoe in Pelican Bay State Prison — said if you have anger or frustration, “What do you gotta do? Just hold everything inside.”

Farming and owning land is the ultimate freedom, but it’s also the ultimate responsibility. Having all of these living things under your name. You can’t just leave them.

After my morning duties are finished, I walk back to the house for breakfast. I decide to do some yoga in my sun room — one of the four empty bedrooms — to stretch, relax and decompress. As I’m sitting there focusing on my breathing, I start to laugh uncontrollably thinking about how awesome it is that my biggest frustration in life is that the hydraulic plugs were attached to the wrong sockets on a tractor on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

The Country Wave

The school boy rides his bike down the country road, flanked by dewy green paddocks, to the sheet metal bus stop. He stares at me in the cockpit of my tractor, transfixed. He waves admirably. He can’t wait until his Dad reckons he’s old enough to drive one of these awesome machines.

I continue on to the goat farm and meet the familiar face of the ancient farmer standing by his ancient tractor. He momentarily stops cutting the twine off the bale of hay, faces me and waves his blue-handled knife with a gap-toothed grin.

The local butcher shoots me a wave as we meet on the rural highway. He is making his morning deliveries and I am picking up silage to feed the cows. We both have places to be.

The bobby-truck driver — who takes the 4-day-old male calves to the slaughter — and the milk-tanker driver salute with solidarity as they make their rounds. They started out as farmers but now they have auxiliary roles, less responsibility and less excitement.

It’s a slow and dangerous game when we cross paths on opposite sides of a one lane bridge. He is faster and more experienced, so I stop to let him go first. He flashes his brights to say thanks for waiting.

If I catch a wave from someone in a car, ute, van or SUV, I know they are farmers. Ever eager to return to their animals and paddocks and fresh air.

I am an alien in this small town in this small foreign country but when I don my overalls and gum boots, I’m one of them. I’m only a visitor, a pretender trying to gain insight into this life, but the country wave makes me feel like I’ve lived here my whole life.

I’ve seen another side of the country wave with some casual work for the local furniture moving company. They ring me when they have a big day and need an extra set of hands. I love sitting in the middle seat and watching the interactions between the truck drivers. There’s another world above the cars.

Gary, the business owner, is a short man with a grey goatee. His beer gut is just a ruse to hide his old-school Dad strength enhanced by 15 years of lifting furniture. He loves to give me advice. It’s not about being strong, it’s about technique.

Nah, nah, nah, mate,” he says as I awkwardly lift a mattress. “Hold it above your nuts so you’re not waddling around like a penguin.”

On a Saturday morning — after driving 14 hours from the South Island the day before — he shows up to the yard with bags under his eyes.

“Fuckin’ Nic rang in sick,” he says. “Useless cunt.”

If he finds out he was on the piss last night, he will tear him a new arsehole.

Gary has been waving to other truck drivers for years and he is a no frills type of guy, especially today. He gives a dutiful raise of the hand straight up and then straight down. If he recognizes a driver, he will give a little extra motion to signal he’s a friend. As we cruise by his mechanic’s shop or another friendly business, he gives a toot of the horn.

The personality of the driver is reflected in their wave. The young gun, Noodle, a well-built 20-year-old with sleeve tattoos, gauges and an undercut throws up an over-the-top “west-side” style wave in front of the steering wheel. It mostly annoys the more mature drivers but there are always a few who match his enthusiasm.

On a sunny day, driving through the town centre is exciting. Everyone in town knows the furniture boys and people stop to wave. Gary lets out a quick double tap on the horn to greet his mates. It’s comfortable here.

I will always be grateful to the those generous souls in small town New Zealand who taught me how to farm and move furniture and be a man and to those who were simply friendly enough to recognize my existence with a wave and a smile. The country wave is a way of life. It says, You’re my neighbor and I will always have your back. We’re in this together.

Doubt

I almost left the farm.

I want to be free and drive south to Taupo, with her beautiful lake and mountains, or some quaint coastal town. Everyone else is traveling around the country and having fun and I’m slaving away on a farm communicating with one human and 200-something cows and 30-something calves. I want to go skiing. I want to live at a hostel. Work at a cafe. Meet new and exciting people. I want to drive my van around the countryside and sleep in the back. No Internet, read books. Go on adventures. Go tramping. Get into silly situations. Drift and create the stuff from which stories are made.

After a day of traveling and facing strange encounters, I immediately feel the need to write and it flows out effortlessly. They are novel and interesting, I think, but the best stories take patience. Some stories evolve and get better with time, like chili in a crockpot. Maybe your feelings change. Maybe you develop a new perspective. Some stories never end.

I wanted to leave the farm because I felt like a burden. When I first met Digger, he didn’t want to hire me. This story started when I met Jeremy…

I stayed at a hostel for my last month or so in Australia. I had moved out of my flat and needed an easy place to stay until my visa expired. The receptionist recognized me from the Wide Open Space music festival and knew I was “cool.”

I’ll put you with Jeremy,” she says as she looks at the hostel notebook.

I get my key and enter a dark room with a small TV playing Spiderman on DVD. There are three bunk beds covered in dirty sheets, candy wrappers, empty coke bottles, and one outline of a human body underneath a blanket.

I hear a raspy, cigarette voice come from the top bunk in the corner.

“Hey, bro. I’m Jeremy.”

I set my bags on the bottom bunk bed on the opposite side of the room and introduce myself. I tell him I’ve been living in Alice for about 11 months, just came back from a three-week road trip to Adelaide and Melbourne, and I’m going to New Zealand soon.

He slowly lifts his fist into the air and says, “New Zealand,” with as much enthusiasm as his hangover can handle.

Jeremy works at the hostel as the maintenance guy. His job consists of fixing shower heads and repairing the table he broke last night when he was on the piss. He can usually be found around the hostel, barefoot and shirtless in the desert sun wearing raggedy denim shorts with a black peace sign bandana holding up his unwashed blonde surfer hair. Just yell his name and you will probably hear a response. He walks tall on the balls of his feet with his chest puffed out. And he is loud. Very loud.

He's a loose cunt.
He’s a loose cunt.

When I come back from work and step out of my ute I hear his booming voice greet me from the other side of the hostel.

I wave because I’m too soft-spoken to yell across the hostel courtyard.

I’m not sure where the desire came from, but something told me I should work on a dairy farm in New Zealand. I didn’t know why or how, but that was my goal. Luckily, there are heaps of Kiwis in Alice Springs. They are drawn to the easy lifestyle and high wages. I had been talking to Jeremy and Matt, both from the Waikato, about farming in New Zealand.

Don’t work for an Indian,” Matt advises me.

They tell me I’m coming at the perfect time — late June — because the farm season begins on June 1 so everyone will be looking for help. They say some farmers prefer hiring new workers because they don’t have any bad habits. They say it’s easy to find a job. They say to expect a weekly salary of about $800, free accommodation and a freezer full of meat if the farmer kills a beast.

It seemed like a great gig, almost too good to be true.

I asked Jeremy if he could help me find a job on a dairy farm. He is from Matamata, right in the middle of some of the best farmland in the world. The next morning he tells me he called his old lady and she said I have a job starting on June 31. That would give me 10 days after I fly into Auckland to buy a car and make my way to the farm.

Once I made it to New Zealand and talked to his Mum, I found out he lied and there was no dream job waiting for me.

I thought I would have to try something else and give up on my farming pipe dream. The dairy payout in New Zealand is the lowest in ten years and most farmers are set to lose at least a quarter of a million dollars this year. Farmers are culling their animals, laying off workers, and not spending any money. That means no one wants to hire a completely inexperienced American guy who used to work in sterilized Washington, D.C. offices and tourist town bars in Australia.

Jeremy’s parents let me stay in his bedroom for a few days while I figure out my next step. On my second night they invited Digger, one of Jeremy’s best mates, over for dinner. He seemed like a very genuine guy. I told him my situation. He said he couldn’t hire me. He has been on his farm for less than a month and he doesn’t have a budget for me. I told him I’m looking into WWOOFing and willing to work for free. I just want experience.

Digger decided to give me a chance. The next morning he picked me up and we drafted his cows. The next day I put up a fence. The next day we lit some big bonfires and I took the thin foam mattress out of my van and onto the floor of one of the four empty bedrooms in his cold house.

For the first few weeks it was easy work and I would come and go as I pleased. Preparing the farm for calving, fixing fences, readying the milking shed. I was learning something new every day and I enjoyed being outdoors in the beautiful Waikato.

Once calving started, he said, “Well, I guess I should start paying you.”

Now we were talking hours and pay and everything was confusing. I didn’t want to be a burden and every time I fucked up and dropped a tape gate or let a cow escape I felt like I should be paying him for lost time.

He said he likes working alone because if something goes wrong he only blames himself. I could tell when he didn’t want me around.

I would work with Digger during the week but he said he would quiet happily work alone on the weekends. So I would sit in my cold room and smoke and watch movies and TV shows and browse inane travel blogs, not understanding how something so trivial and boring could muster 400 followers and 20 likes on every post. Just because you are somewhere noteworthy, doesn’t make your 200 word listicle post noteworthy. I would search for the bloggers who write with passion, who actually have something to say besides the best place to get a coffee in Queenstown.

I am happier when I’m on the farm, but the new rules about money and time relegated me to only being needed at certain hours. It’s a strange relationship having your boss, roommate, workmate and friend all rolled into one. It takes time to get a feel for how to communicate with each other.

After being in a funk all weekend, I perform my morning tractor duties and when I return to the farm Digger drives up and skips the greeting and says a heifer jumped a fence and can you stand here and be on traffic control duty. My mood immediately picks up and I remember that I have a place here and everything is right with the world.

I’ve realized that Digger and I both like having our own space and being alone, but we need each other. It’s getting busy now so there is always work to do. I am more confident and independent and we know how to work with each other. Digger can go into town to buy Mastitis drugs and I can milk the first two rows myself and hopefully not fuck anything up.

DCIM100GOPRO
After a victorious milking.

I can’t believe I wanted to leave this place just a few days ago. I love being here. I did so much badass shit today. I drove a tractor down the highway with a full load of silage. I taught two newborn calves how to drink and fed eight buckets of milk to the heifer calves. I shoveled soiled sawdust from the calf pens into the bucket on the tractor and then changed to the forklift to dump the rubbish bins into the trash pile. I rode a two-wheeler around the farm and chased cows and set up temporary fences. I got poo flung in my eye. My finger was caught between a cow and a metal bar. A cow kicked my arm into a beam. A cow stood on my toes while I was wrestling her back through the gate with her head in my arms grimacing, “Fuck you, cunt,” through my teeth. I’m sore and I’m tired but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This story isn’t over yet. I can’t just cut a story short because of a brief period of doubt. I have to see it through. It’s OK to be uneasy. It’s ok to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you want to move on and leave everything behind. I always want to travel and drift, but right now my place is here on the farm.

DCIM100GOPRO
At peace.

There is no right time to write. Everyday I become a new person. Sometimes I read back on what I wrote in my journal last year and I wonder how I ever thought these thoughts. I think that is the purpose of writing. To make yourself immortal for a day. Maybe there is no write time, it’s just right all the time.

My Stock Sense is Tingling

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.

Umm, can I take your baby, please?

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.

Caption!
Moving a healthy heifer calf into a new pen.

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.