Sunday, April 5, 2009

Truth breaks in, with all its matter-of-factness

The best test for an occupation is this: do it for 3 days on next to no sleep, under stress, in the dank gray despondency of New England spring. If, on the third day, even as you realize that you have to put down your best milk cow, you can notice that the weather has cleared and the first peeping frogs are singing a serenade to spring, you are where you should be.

Taking advantage of the short break between Colombia and Caretaker, Andrew and I returned to Sidehill Farm the first week of April to visit with dairy farmers Paul and Amy. We had visited Sidehill in December as part of my grand farm-touring extravaganza and were eager to return for more stories, maple yogurt, and dairying advice. Before we arrived, Paul and Amy warned us that they were in the midst of calving season and that the farm's schedule was therefore highly unpredictable, and we eagerly promised to help with anything the farm had to offer.

As we drove up the mountain, the last of the morning's fog burned away to reveal muddy roads and new spring growth. We pulled on rubber boots and went looking for our hosts. We found Amy and Paul looking harried and slightly dazed--Paul was overseeing the final steps on a batch of yogurt and loading a van for deliveries as Amy lured a young calf to the barn with a bottle of milk.

The aforementioned calf, nicknamed, amusingly, Ross Perot, had caused quite a stir with his birth. Though he went through the motions of nursing--making sucking noises and nosing around his mother's udder--he was ultimately unable to work out the complicated logistics of eating. Due to his ardent (but unsuccessful) efforts, this had gone unnoticed for several days, with two critical effects. The calf, Ross, had endured a hungry first week and was now dependent on humans for food. Even worse, his mother, Belle, formerly Amy and Paul's best milker, had contracted coliform mastitis in her unmilked udder. Cows are generally rather hardy animals, but after springtime calving and winter's drying off, their immune systems dip, leaving cows vulnerable to normally harmless bugs. Mastitis can range in severity from a mild, short term infection to a life-threatening systemic inflammation. The stress of carrying excess milk, coupled with her propensity to lounge in poop during her off hours, had left Belle incapacitated with a particularly vicious systemic infection. The vet was optimistic that she would pull through, but recommended that someone "strip" her (ie: milk out the infection) hourly. So Paul had spent the last two nights sleeping in the barn with a sick cow, while Amy juggled all of the normal start of the season tasks, a yogurt plant inspection, and the biggest vegetable distribution they had staged in months.

They explained all of this wearily over a lunch where coffee featured like an entree. Most of the chaos seemed to be dying down, though, so Andrew and I (who are greener than greenhorns in the dairy cow department) soon found ourselves picking up fencing and helping in the greenhouse: everyday sorts of tasks. We caught up with Amy as we worked, and the stresses of the milking barn retreated under the warm rays of spring and the satisfying feeling of completed tasks. At 7, we returned to the barn to bring in the baby calves for the night (this nocturnal separation leaves the mothers with milk for the morning milking).

Belle had deteriorated. She was lying on her side, taking labored breaths, and her teats were turning blue from the infection. After a brief discussion, Amy and Paul decided to call the vet for a final house call. While they waited, both farmers stroked Belle and spoke quietly to calm her. Together, we pushed her into a more natural position and propped her there with a bale of hay. The vet came, matter-of-fact, business-like. He confirmed Paul and Amy's diagnosis, that Belle would not make morning and that to leave her tonight would only prolong her pain. He injected her with a syringe that slowed her breathing and brought her great head to the barn floor. His work finished, the vet went home.

We paused for a moment to collect ourselves and take stock of the new situation. We now had a 1,000 lb dead cow in the barn, at a right angle to the door. Cow-moving equipment is not something that most farmers keep around. Two hours later, after some very tight tractor work and several simple machines, Paul had removed Belle to her final resting place of pasture, where he was covering her with compost to speed her return to the grass. Now worried that the other young mothers might be similarly undermilked and vulnerable to mastitis, Amy decided that a late night milking was in order for two cows who were still in seclusion with their calves. Ross needed to be fed. And the other calves still needed to come in. It was 9:30 at night and Andrew and I could help with none of this.

So we did the only thing that we could do, made dinner, and kept it warm. Sometime around 10:30 Amy and Paul finally allowed themselves to stop.

When someone asks me what farming is like, I ought to describe this long, layered day. Farming is ingenuity and satisfaction, compassion and resolve. It is contains great gaping spaces for beauty if you can allow yourself to look up, smell the evening air, and find the strength to work on.

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