A visit to Kay-Ben Farm on August 5. Becky (Benson) and I talk about the rain. She says they've never seen a year like this, not in all the years her husband (Eddie) has been farming. They are in danger of not being able to feed their cows through the winter - the corn on higher ground looks fine, but you get down in the valleys and it's yellow, six inches deep in water, and the hay fields are muck. Thankfully, she says, they have the ability to wrap round bales, which they couldn't have done five years ago. Grass ferments inside the plastic wrapping and the cows love it like candy, cow saurkraut. But you can't feed round bails in the dead of winter because they freeze. You can't even cut into them. So they may have to sell cows or buy feed. She's not sure which they will do.
Becky walks me over to the side of the barn where about fifteen cows are spending the day outside. We're there to watch the cows for heat. Becky explains their various behaviors to me: "See, she's just nervous about the dog. And she's interested in us, she's like - what's up guys? And that one there is just lettin' 'em know who's boss. They do have a pecking order, that's for sure." We're looking for signs of aggression that are slightly out of place, or if a cow can "stand to be ridden", Becky explains, it means she's in heat.
We leave the milk cows and cross the road to watch the heifers. We discuss their complex naming system as we walk. I don't profess to fully understand the whole picture, because I still don't really understand how cow families work, but each cow has a name and a number. And the name is related in some way to the mother. And names are used for some purposes, numbers for others. The numbers are big, like 2524. I am amazed that they can keep track of these cows. I asked the herdsman, Ryan, how he can keep them straight. He shrugged and said: "It's just every day." Also, he points out, he helped a lot of them into the world. He says he remembers when most of them were born.
I stay to watch them lead the milk cows back into the barn. "This should be exciting," says Ryan. "We're going to try to take them one at a time into the barn, and they all want to go." If they break loose, he says, they'll just walk around for a bit and head into the barn themselves. In many cases, they know exactly where their stalls are and they'll find their own way. It's dinnertime.