Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Ode to Chloe

When did I become a farmer, rather than simply a curious person who wanted to grow food? I don't think it was the day that I signed up for the next agricultural census, or my first garlic harvest, or even when I worked through summer's heat in Georgia or a month of rain in Massachusetts. Of course, such a stepping into self doesn't occur in the course of a day, any more than I wake up each year on my birthday feeling a full year older. I do feel, however, that milking a cow is a milestone worth noting.

Chloe calved for us on a Sunday night near the end of June. We sat outside her stall, transfixed by her straining labor--Jerseys are notoriously melodramatic, Don says. Finally, with a little bit of help from Don, the slick, skinny calf slid out onto the straw. He lay there, limp and discombobulated, and Chloe busied herself by licking him clean like a fussy mother. In short order, his hunger got the better of him, and he began floppily stretching for his mother's teat. This continued for a while, Chloe cleaning, the calf balancing precariously then tipping over under his mother's ministrations, until finally satisfied, Chloe let him have his first draught of milk. Micah, Don's 3-year-old son, had already christened the calf Jingle Bells.

For about the first week after calving, a cow produces a super rich milk called colostrum, which is critically important for her calf's healthy development. We milked Chloe that first week so that her milk production would remain high, but allowed Jingle Bells to drink as much as he wanted, and we fed the surplus colostrum to the pigs. I waited impatiently for my turn. Finally, the following Monday, we began milking Chloe for ourselves. Jersey milk has the highest butterfat content of any of the common dairy breeds, and truly, you can taste the difference. The beta carotene in the milk gives it an ever so faint ivory tone, and if you let the cream rise, it will form a thick almost golden crown on the milk. I used to drink milk as an excuse to eat cookies; with this kind of milk, it is the other way round.

Even with Jingle Bells freely nursing, we're getting up to 2 gallons of milk a day, and even making butter, queso blanco, sour cream, buttermilk, ricotta, paneer, feta, and whipped cream, we're still practically swimming in the stuff. Its a good life.

Meanwhile, on Monday, I began my week on the milking rotation. Milking Chloe is both incredibly fulfilling and terribly frustrating. Frustrating because Chloe is getting used to me, and thus has a tendency to kick at the bucket. Twice now I've had to discard a partial pail of milk after a dirty, well aimed cow hoof splashed into its contents. Even with my stops and starts, though, I love the rhythm of milking.

We tend to our animals with respect and care, but rarely do we have time in our days to sit with and observe them. Not that I really want to bond with our pigs, or our chickens, or even really with our beef cows. All of those animals are transient, serving a short term purpose for which we appreciate them. They will be eaten with gratitude, not remorse. But Chloe is our milk cow. She'll give us milk and an yearly calf for twelve or more years, and her manure will fertilize our fields and pastures. We can love her. And every morning when we milk her, we can sit close, with our heads resting against her side. We breath in her sweet cow smell--not of manure or barnyards, but a fresh scent, like clean laundry with soft animal overtones. We sing to her in time with the sound of the milk hitting the pail.

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