I stood in a sunken milking area of a large dairy operation, talking with the proprietor, a friend of my husband. As we three laughed and chatted, 200+ Jersey cows came in to milk on either side and above us , each ignoring our presence and doing her job entering and leaving the massive concrete building, but for one. One stopped as she was exiting, looked dead at me and refused to move, a long line of cows behind her pushing her back side as she interrupted the flow of the routine did nothing to break the eye lock she had on me. Head slightly down so she could see me below, she stood, stock still and regarded me with what appeared to be recognition, but could not have been as that was my first ever visit inside the facility.
My husband asked his friend, ” why is that one cow staring at my wife?” The seasoned farmer looked up from his work and replied, ” I don’t know, but she’s just a sweet, sweet cow.”
Eventually, the weight of multiple cows pushing behind her in their desire to leave the parlor was too much for her to stand her ground anymore and she began to leave, stealing one more look at me over her shoulder. I gave her a respectful nod and said ” Bye, pretty girl.”
I had over 200 Jersey cows walk past me that day in single file lines right over my head, my eyes level with their ankles. That one cow, I could not get out of my mind for days.
The next time we visited the dairy, we were there to pick out and buy some painted Jersey bottle calves. The farmer was well into his afternoon milking, a process that takes up to five hours each session, morning and evening. Again, I stood in ‘the pit’ with he and my husband, talking and joking and admiring his cows as they came in and went out. Again, that one cow stopped and bent down to get a look at me. Not a single other cow did that. That time, I was more intrigued and my husband was moved to ask questions about her.
We watched her move up the line slower than the others. I noticed her hooves were misshapen but not unkempt, she had a wise look about her features. We learned that she is 16 years old. She had been with the dairy since she was a heifer. She was a friendly cow who never gave a moment’s trouble. She regarded me again with a stare that suggested she knew me, which now made less sense than before. Having been at the dairy all her life, she would have been handled and cared for only by the farmer himself and his brothers, their wives were completely uninvolved and any employees wandering about the cows were mostly Spanish in heritage. There was simply no reason for that cow to know me , nor be interested in my presence, yet there she was, watching me intently with a sense of familiarity.
That time, she branded herself on my spirit.
For the next 9 weeks, she kept coming to the forefront of my thoughts and that parlayed itself into all sorts of thought processes shooting off in multiple directions all at once. I found myself understanding more about big dairies through my consideration of her and her life than I previously had. I understood more why they operate the way they do even when I wish they didn’t have to. I thought of the differences in the lives of my own Jerseys as compared to the life she’s led.
Let me state, very clearly and with conviction, that it has not been my personal observation that large dairies abuse or neglect their charges. To the large diary, the bottom line is exceptionally important and not taking care of their stock would translate into huge financial losses. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the large dairy is more motivated, willing and knowledgeable in taking both proactive and immediate steps to ensure the health of their cows than most small keepers even consider. They are not in the habit of refusing to get vet attention for an animal that is ill or down. They are more observant of their herds and notice issues faster than many ‘ humane’ farmers. The farmers of big dairy that I have had the pleasure of interacting with are also very kind and truly care about their animals.
There are drawbacks for the bovines, however.
Big Ag dairies do not generally have the ability to have their cows leisurely grazing lush grasses; most of the cows are grouped in the hundreds in smaller areas on mud and areas of concrete. The cows are conditioned to eat at certain times of the day and to walk across and over concrete often , as the surface is easily cleaned and sterilized. The parlors are also typically concrete and block, floors and all. The cows stand and walk across vast areas of the cement twice daily. Concrete is not meant for livestock. It is hard on their joints and hooves. Most larger dairies also have a concrete slope the cows will tread to enter the milking area. One I know of in this state has the cows walking up concrete stairs. I never even knew a cow could navigate stairs until I saw several hundred do it.
A ubiquitous practice of the professional dairy is to pull and bottle feed the calves. This practice is employed for multiple reasons, none of which I understood the necessity of until I began to visit licensed dairies and talk with the proprietors in a respectful way and with a curiosity tempered with science and a desire to understand. Keeping the calves with the dams would present a number of logistical and biological nightmares:
There would be no way, in a herd of hundreds all calving on the same schedule, to ensure each calf was nursing enough left in the fields.
There would be no way to keep a calf safe from injury by other cows or environmental threats such as predators in a herd that size.
There is always the risk of mammary infection to the dam as a calf can pick up and harbor bacteria and viruses in their mouths that are harmless to the calf but infectious to the udder. I had this happen on my small farm once. A cow kept getting the same mastitis infection over and over. We treated her. The vet treated her. It would resolve and flare over the weeks. Finally, the vet cultured the milk and swabbed the mouth of the calf and the lab found that the calf was harboring a common environmental bacteria that exists in all dirt but causes infection in the udder. We pulled and bottled the calf. We had no choice.
Another consideration for large diaries is general sanitation. If they have calves running with their milking herd, there would be no way to keep them out of the milking parlor. Most trained dairy cows rarely relieve themselves while milking, but calves are indiscriminate about when and where they poop and pee. It just wouldn’t be clean or safe for the customer.
Those things being stated, I still hate that they have to do what they do. Jerseys in particular are excellent mothers. Part of being an exemplary mother is that they mourn the loss of their calves, deeply and for a long time compared to many breeds. It breaks my heart to hear a Jersey cow crying for her calf and calling out for it in that haunting , low tones moo that is reserved only for her baby. I do not pull calves from the dam. Here. it isn’t necessary and I would consider it hateful to do so when I don’t need to.
A few weeks ago, we visited that dairy again to pick up a dual-purpose calf we had purchased. That time, I was outside of the parlor waiting for the farmer when the old girl walked by me in line to go in for her milking time. We regarded each other. She gently mooed at me when I greeted her. Then, she dutifully turned away and went in to the parlor. No other cow noticed us.
Last night, I asked my husband if I really wanted something for my birthday would he try to make it happen. I then said, ” I want that old cow. I can’t explain to you why I want her other than we have a connection , she and I. It isn’t practical. It doesn’t make sense. She’s arthritic. She’s in bad shape compared to mine. She’s old. She likely only has a few years left at best. I want her last years to be peaceful and I want her to feel special. She’s been a faithful servant. I want her to know what it’s like to be a pet. I want her to know singular love. I want her to raise her own baby, just once. I want her to have a name and be called by it . I want her to spend her last days on green pastures with space. I just want her and I feel that she wants me. I know it will be a challenge to even get him to consider parting with a cow he’s milking and has been in his herd this long. I know it is a financial mistake, she’s not a ‘ special ‘ cow and she has more to ask of us than to give…frankly we can’t even eat her when she dies, but I am asking you to try. I really want to bring her home.”
I don’t know if we will be able to convince the farmer to part with her. He had mentioned at our last visit that it may be time to retire her when she stopped to greet me in a long line of cows that completely ignored me. He said he would turn her out to pasture. That would not be a tragic end to her life of service, by any means, but I rather hope and pray she can retire here, with me. I feel it’s where she’s meant to be.