Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

OK, Corral and What Not To Do (Jennie)

I don’t think of myself as a terribly large person. If you bother to do the math, my body weight accounts for approximately 7% of an average Holstein dairy cow. And yet thrice now I have been instructed by Ryan to “stand over there” with my arms spread to full span, and to “keep the cows from going that way”. Really? Me? Are you sure? There’s not a half note of hesitation in his voice. “Don’t be afraid to hit her”. Oh, well, okay. In that case . . .

It is 11 am on a Wednesday, and Ryan and Tristan are out to catch a troublesome heifer. Two weeks ago, I stood with Cory and Claire in the Bensons’ kitchen and watched through the window as three people attempted to coax a stubborn cow across the road. It took them more than 20 minutes and no small amount of physical persuasion. And that very heifer is the one we have to catch today. Right now.

We let ourselves into the dry cow pasture and Ryan identifies our target. He places me next to a dried cow pie and heads off toward the heifer in a far corner of the pasture. She immediately begins moving away from him, zig-zagging back and forth through the grass. “She knows something’s up”, says Tristan. “If she jumps the fence . . .” says Ryan, trailing off as the heifer leaps the electric boundary and bounds off through the compost piles. “Like that?” asks Tristan.

Now I have a new job. When the heifer jumped the fence, she took a good forty feet of it down with her. So my new job is to defend the weak corner of the fence and to keep the remaining 25 pregnant cows inside the pasture. Sure. No problem. I am huge, intimidating, in control. My heart is racing. I’ve got this.

Ryan and Tristan sprint up into the compost heaps in search of the loose heifer, calling each other as if playing some complex, high-stakes game of Marco Polo. I can only occasionally see them as they round a corner before heading down into a swamp or racing up the drive. The cow appears every now and then as well, never within reach of her pursuers. I anxiously await the conclusion of this episode and regard my charges with what I hope is pronounced disinterest. Ryan assured me that these cows wouldn’t give me “any trouble”. They don’t know the fence is down, after all.

Within two minutes of Ryan’s departure, I nervously acknowledge the approach of a large, mostly black cow whose name I do not know. She makes her way toward me slowly, but with determination. I’m pretty sure she’d like to know what I’m guarding. Otherwise, she hopes to follow her former companion across the breach. Either way, she must be stopped.

“Go on”, I tell her. Really, it’s almost a whisper. “Go on, get out.” She continues toward me, moves as if to pass me on the right. I step in her way. She tries a fake to the left. I block her again. She plants herself inches from my shoulder, sniffs at my arm, cranes her neck to see behind me. I stand very still and try not to piss her off. I know it’s silly, but standing there with a 1200 lb cow staring me in the face, I half expect to be charged. I find it difficult to look her in the eye. I remind myself repeatedly that she is not a bull. I endure her presence for an eternity, finally swat her on the rump and bark at her. She saunters off. Thank heaven.

Ten minutes later, she’s back. This time, she’s brought some friends. I move into the tall grasses just feet from the most vulnerable section of fence and find myself surrounded by no less than five cows. Oh, man I wish those guys would catch that damned heifer. How long can I carry off this farce? How long before one of these ladies decides to ignore me? What then? 26 cows loose in the compost. My fault.

One of the new cows advances. I suck in my breath and prepare for who knows what. She thrusts her nose toward me. I slap her on the jowl. She pushes her nose at me again. I tell her to be gone. The third time, I scratch her between the eyes. I stroke the bridge of her nose and I realize that the other cows are looking kind of jealous. Maybe all they wanted was to say “hi”?

With great relief, I see Tristan headed toward me through the grass. The loose heifer has, inexplicably, returned to the pasture. Ryan and Tristan have given up for now; they fix the fence and leave the heifer until after lunch. Holy wow, holy cow, it’s over. I did it. Somehow, my substantial body mass was enough to block five cows.

****One week later; we are once again chasing a heifer. By this time, I’ve participated in blocking, guiding, and redirecting cows on multiple occasions. I’ve even led a cow to pasture by myself. On this day, I am ecstatic to find that I am no longer afraid. I’m actually kind of excited. It’s exciting stuff, chasing and catching cows.

The heifer we are meant to catch this time is destined for a sale in Turner. The truck that will transport her to this sale is currently sitting in front of the milk barn. The man who drives the truck is waiting. Everyone feels some pressure to make this a quick and clean transaction. Catch the cow. Put the cow on the truck. Wave bye-bye.

By the time I reach the pasture, Ryan and Tristan are already running alongside a largely white heifer in a nearby corner. There’s no one there to tell me where to stand, so I make my best guess and plant myself in “athletic stance”. Within a few moments the cow, and Ryan, come bolting toward me at full speed. I throw myself into the game and run too – trying to contain the cow within Ryan’s reach. She sprints forward and beyond us and is over the nearest knoll in seconds.

“Jennie,” says Ryan, “come up here – we want her to go toward the fence.”

Minutes later we are again chasing the cow over the knoll and back toward the pasture gate. And once again, I manage to put myself in the wrong place. The wrong place? That would be between the cow and the fence. Thanks to Claire, we have excellent documentation of this.

So here’s me – very enthusiastically doing exactly the wrong thing:

Among other things I’ve gotten confused, or just plain wrong, in the past two weeks . . . I have these additions to make to our glossary:

The 3 Scrapes

  • Scrape Back: To scrape cow feces and urine off of their beds and into the grates behind them. Also involves scraping piles of poo through the grates and covering wet spots on the floor or bed with sawdust.
  • Scrape Down: To scrape the last of the old feed (silage, hay, and /or grain) away from the cows to the end of the barn. “Scrapings” are piled in front of the last three stalls on each side of the barn. The cows in these stalls are in the process of being “dried off” and will soon go to pasture. They are nearing the end of their pregnancies, and the extra feed will limit their milk production.
  • Scrape In: To scrape the morning’s feed toward the cow. This is generally done before “graining” and allows the feed to stay within each cow’s reach (they’ve generally spread it around and pushed it out of reach by mid-morning).
It may be fairly obvious at this point, but the two that are easily confused by a rookie are the scraping down, and the scraping in.