Thursday, May 24, 2012

Musings on the dairy farm

This is going to be a bit of a ramble.  Sorry, I don't have any real recipes to post at the moment. 

I've started working a few days a week at the farm that hosts our cowshare. (In case you're unfamiliar with it, a cowshare is shared ownership of one or more cows.  This is mostly to get around the fact that it's illegal to buy or sell raw milk in Canada.  You may, however, drink the milk straight from your own cow - so if you want raw milk, you have to own a cow.  Since cows tend to produce far more milk than one family needs, it makes sense to share cows among a few families.  Thus, we own a few bits of 3 cows, and we share them with 20 or so other families.  We get a gallon of milk a week.  As we're not heavy milk drinkers, that's plenty for tea, kefir and the odd warm milk and honey before bed.)

I really like the farm work.  I love the cows, of course - they have interesting personalities and are gentle and peaceable creatures.  But more than that, I love the rhythm of the days.  Wake up, have a nibble and start work right away, work for a few hours and take a break for socializing, coffee and a bite to eat.  Go back to work then stop for a communal lunch.  Post-lunch is for resting, puttering work, personal projects, time with the kiddo.  Then it's time for dinner.  After dinner, more work! Cows need milking twice a day, at more or less twelve hour intervals.  Then a bit of reading to wind down, then bed.  Days at the farm are full but not hectic - there's a measured pace to everything (you can't rush a cow, or heat milk too quickly for cheese or yogurt), an order to everything, and constant seasonal change amid a structure of reassuring sameness. 

Ginger and Nell, the two purebred Jerseys.
While we were out this week, the second cow had her calf.  The calving was uncomplicated and smooth, and happened right after the morning milking.  Rowan, my daughter, got to see the new calf still all slimy, before it even managed to stand up.  We all watched as the new calf took her first wobbly steps and found her mama's teats.  It was lovely.
Canela with her new calf
The next day, the calf was to be separated from her mother.  As a mother, my heart hurts for both the cow and calf.  But as someone who has been around these cows for years and who has read a great deal about dairying and talked to many people involved in it, I understand the necessity.  Calves grow quickly and will consume more milk than they need - dairy cows being bred to produce far more than is "natural".  This particular cow, Canela, is half Hereford (beef cattle) and half Jersey.  She carries the genes for producing vast quantities of rich milk, and the genes for fast, heavy growth.  The herd administrators kept her first calf with her, hoping she'd be able to foster the other calves as well.  No such luck - she pushed them off and wouldn't let them suckle.  HER calf, on the other hand, grew so fast and so big that there was concern for her health.  Canela's teats fared poorly, with the calf favouring one side, the other became infected. She's still a bit lopsided from the ordeal.

It's risky, keeping a dairy cow (or even a cow with dairy genes) and her calf together, so they're separated for good reasons - not only because of too-fast growth for the calf, but if you're trying to milk as well, the machine, hand AND calf mouth all together are really hard on the teats.  But cows are mammals, like us, and they have instincts and feelings about their offspring.  Canela is probably extremely sad, pissed off, and angry right now.  She will get over it quickly, within a few days, but the emotions and stress are indisputably there.  Most people don't think about this, when they drink milk.  It's considered food appropriate for most vegetarians (vegans aside) as it's produced without loss of life.  Except that's not strictly true, either.  Cows need to calve in order to produce milk, but the calf is essentially a by-product. Canela's calf will live until November, when the grass stops growing, and then she will be slaughtered and butchered and eaten with gratitude.  Calves in commercial dairying operations are not so lucky.  Some are slaughtered as veal, some are raised for beef.  Few will have the luxury of as much pasture as they want, individual care and attention, and even a name as the calves born at our farm will.

For me, I have no reservations about keeping dairy cows the way we do, breeding them, taking away their babies and drinking their milk.  It sounds heinous, to be sure.  But we're responsible for these beings, and in the form in which they exist, this is what is best for them.  They aren't a product of nature or God - they're a product of human ingenuity and an unspoken pact our progenitors made with theirs.  We give them protection, food, freedom from disease and - in the case of our cows - a long, healthy, frankly pampered life.  We also ensure that some of their genes survive, by keeping the best of their offspring.  In return, we ask for their milk and their less-perfect offspring.  From a cow's perspective, it's probably a fair deal.  Left to their own devices, dairy cows as a subspecies wouldn't survive.  Our ancestors, probably out of necessity, bred creatures who simply produce too much milk.  It's up to us to treat those creatures as well as we can, make them comfortable, wanted and useful, and be grateful for them.  The same is true for nearly all our domestic animals, it's just the details of their keeping that differ.

I can understand not wanting to partake of dairy products once you comprehend exactly what goes into their production.  Indeed, large commercial dairies are far crueler and less healthy for the cows.  I'm not condoning them.  But I would hate to see a world in which a partnership like we have with dairy cows had vanished.  It's not an easy relationship, and it certainly raises some ethical questions.  It's that unease that makes the relationship worthwhile, I think.  The ability to shape our environment - all of it, plants, landscape, animals - and turn almost anything into a tool, is what makes us human.  It's what we are.  Using dairy cows is only slightly different than using vast tracts of land for a single crop, using a net to catch lots of fish at once, subverting entire ecosystems to grow rice, or any other activity of food production.  There are no humans anywhere who don't alter and pervert natural processes, simply to live. The first human to choose which wolf pup to keep and the first human to pull out one plant to give another more room to grow, put us on this path. The right and wrong of that isn't as important as simply being conscious and aware of it, and to keep our part of the bargain in mind. (I'm not sure commercial dairying operations do that. Those cows don't exactly have long lives free of disease.)

Being part of a small-scale dairying operation forces me to face head-on some of the ramifications of being human, and for that I am gratefully uncomfortable.  It's a discomfort I can live with.  I don't think I could say the same if I were working at a large-scale commercial dairy... or, for that matter, a large-scale technology firm that used resources without any sense of a compact or agreement with their sources, and was only obliged to make more money every year than the year before it... but that's a whole 'nother article.