The story below is an excerpt from our May/June 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
I grew up in a lovely farming community in Virginia. It was a great place to be a kid and learn about life. These were not factory farms. These were true family farms, multi-generational, and if a kid went off to college it was to Virginia Tech to study dairy science or something useful like that before returning to help keep the farm profitable.
The dairy farmers I knew were familiar with every cow on the farm. They fretted over them, knew their habits, and they depended on the herd to support their families.
The cows knew their farm families, too. They figured out which kid would scratch their ears and which human was too busy to bother. Do not underestimate the intelligence of your average cow. Cows are not just standing there, chewing cud. They’re thinking. Cows figure stuff out.
For those of you who haven’t connected the vitamin D dots, milk comes from dairy cows. Cows lactate after they’ve had a calf. That means that every two years or so, a cow has to give birth in order to keep producing milk. That’s a lot of calves. Approximately half of them are going to be male. Boy cows are fine animals but they are worthless for milk production, so they’re often reclassified as veal.
Funny thing, though. Cows don’t see their brand new calves as surplus. They see them as their babies. Turns out, cows care. A lot. If you misjudged the due date and didn’t get the cow confined to the barn in time, cows will give birth in concealed areas to protect their newborns. Unfortunately, cows can get in real trouble giving birth to something with four spindly broomsticks for legs. It’s safer for all if the birthing is done in the barn, under supervision. Not all cows agree. They will become crankily uncooperative about the process.
That’s why my friend Anna’s brother built a calf cart. It was a proper wooden farm cart that hooked to the back of his all-terrain vehicle, and Leo was quite proud of his handiwork. Whenever a pregnant cow went the hide-and-seek route, he’d hook up the cart and traverse the property until he found the calf. Leo would load the calf up and take it to the calf barn. The cow never saw her calf again. Honestly, this infuriated the cows.
One day, Leo had ridden all over the farm trying to find a calf. When it started to get dark, he unhitched his homemade wagon and left it near the tree line so he’d get back to the barn quicker. The next morning, Leo headed out thinking he’d just pick up the cart and start searching again. When he rolled up where he’d left it, he found nothing more than a pile of kindling. A collective herd of vindictive mothers, the cows had kicked his hand-built calf cart to splintered smithereens. No misunderstanding that. A great big bovine, “we hate your baby-stealing cart” salvo had been delivered, most effectively.