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Calling in the Cows

Erin Altemus

If I did not know rural Wisconsin as well as I do, I might think nothing has changed in the last twenty years. I am lucky to come from such a rare place, one that has not been plowed over by growth and development. The land I know best consists of the farmland and forests between the St. Croix and the Red Cedar Rivers outside the small town of Glenwood City: Population 1,000. Yet when I look closely at the land of my biography—the winding creeks, deciduous forests, and fields that yield cornstalks and wheat—I find nothing is the same. The changes are so subtle and yet so drastic they are alarming. A landscape once covered with old farmhouses and red barns full of cattle, chickens and children, is now abandoned. Places once full of life are now empty. Structural skeletons not yet buried will disintegrate into the ground and rest in the graveyard of family farms.

“Here Booooooss . . .  here, bossie, bossie, bossie! Come boss, come bossie. Heeeeeerrrreeee Boss!”

I scan the pasture for signs of life. “Here boss, here bossie!”

I will have to retrieve them. I skip across the cowyard, jump over cow pies along the well-worn path, and make my way through the gate. I head into the pasture towards the creek on a whim that they have found the perfect parcel of fresh pasture in that direction.

“Come booss, come booss, come boss!”

Usually they come to my calls, but now they play dumb. A half-mile out, I round the comer and thirty pairs of brown eyes look up from the grass they are eating. It hangs out of their mouths and their jaws pause momentarily, waiting for something to happen. Persephone, a leader of the pack, begins to walk my way. The rest line up, single file behind her. I turn around and retrace my steps towards the barn, calling to the cows as I walk.

“Watch out!” I hear from behind.

My younger brother Sam races by me on his mountain bike and rounds up the cows from the back. A modern-day cowboy. Boca, our Blue Heeler, is racing Sam. She darts in and out of the cows, running back and forth between Sam and me. She instinctively tries to help us round up the cows, but her lack of training makes her a nuisance. Instead of biting at their heels so they move forward, she bites at their noses, and then they don’t know which way to go.

“Boca, get over here.”

My commands do little good; instead, she runs into the woods to chase squirrels and rabbits.

As we near the barnyard, the cows appear eager for their dinner of hay and corn. Some of them prance by faster than I walk, so I step out of their way to let them pass. I watch as they lift their heads in anticipation and kick their heels up behind them in excitement. Their full udders sway from side to side. A few drip milk.

Inside the barn, Mom and Dad are ready for them. Most of the bossies know which stall is theirs. I marvel at their intelligence. Dahlia, the pig of the herd, sneaks into the stall with the biggest mound of grain. Tonight she heads into Monica Val’s spot, and Monica Val heads right in with her. There they stand, stomachs smushing and heads butting together in a fight for the grain. Mom and I shove Dahlia out and she heads into the stall next to her, much to Greta’s dismay. I grab a halter and slip it over Dahlia’s neck. We prod and pull her out of Greta’s way and lead her to her own stall at the other end of the barn. She grunts in disgust at the pathetic size of her food pile. She isn’t a top producer, so we don’t feed her as much.

“Do you want to milk or feed them tonight?” Mom asks me.

“I guess I’ll milk.”

I am not fond of feeding and usually prefer to help my father milk. Before we start, I walk over to the radio and crank up the music. Madonna blares throughout the barn, and Mom and I groove before we start working.

Dad and I set up the three milkers and the buckets of wash water and turn on the vacuum of the pipeline. I head out of the milk house and wash the first three cows, with soapy water and paper towels. We hook up the milkers. I reach down to put the first one on, but at the sound of suction coming towards her teats, Vanna Kay lifts a leg in an effort to kick it off.

“Don’t you dare kick that milker off, Vanna Kay.”

I manage to get the thing on, and I head towards the next cow. I turn around, just as Vanna lifts her leg and kicks the thing off for good. Dad and I race over to recover the milker, which sprawls on the ground sucking up straw and dirt. Last night one landed in the gutter, and it sucked up much worse.

Daphne waits next in line for the milker, and as I reach up to put the milker on her teats, she kicks me squarely in the arm, smearing dirt and manure into my skin. Tears fill my eyes from the pain, and cussing under my breath, I stand and kick her back. Normally I am nothing but nice to the cows, but sometimes I am driven to seek revenge. My love-hate relationship with these animals is in full effect tonight, and I look forward to finishing the chores.

After we finish milking, we let them back out to pasture. They are not as excited about leaving the barn as they were about getting in to eat. Letting them out usually means “hooplawing and hollering” to scare them into leaving. I walk around and release their chains. As they leave their stalls, I follow behind them, wave my arms in the air, and jump up and down in a fanatical dance.

“Whoo-up, whooo, whoo, get on out now bossies. Move on, move on out. Move along, hoooo,heeeey, get along out now.”

A few slaps on the rump and they pick up their pace.

Mom picks up a paper bag and puts it over her head. She waves her arms in the air, hooplawing all the while. The bag trick works, because now they are running. Just as she gets into the act, the bam door opens and the milk hauler walks in. I wonder how many other farmers he catches with paper bags on their heads.

The farmland of Wisconsin is not flat like the cornfields of Iowa, but hilly with deep depressions caused by glaciers. The Wisconsonian Glaciers. Even now when I walk the stretch of road between our house and the barn, I revel in the beauty of our land. The hills all around roll and fold downwards until they converge at the creek below. In the summer, the oak trees, blue spruce, and white pines turn the land green. In between the patches of forest are the cornfields and hay fields that grow taller throughout the summer. In the fall, the leaves of sugar maples blaze orange and red across the hills, finally falling to the ground to be covered with snow. Spring is muddy with warm days and cold nights that allow the sap to run from the maple trees. Then trilliums emerge from the ground and yellow buttercups dot the marshes and stream banks. Even the pastures become a blanket of wildflowers. My grandparents’ house and the barn where we milk the cows lies on the southern horizon, and one other house is visible to the north. Farm trucks, tractors, and milk trucks are more common along our road than cars.

Every time I return home, I walk the path past the garden and into the hills. I relive my childhood during these walks. In May we picked the spring flowers and in August, blackberries. I stained my hands and lips and body with berry juice and blood from running through thickets of prickles. Sometimes there were some berries leftover for Mom to make jam. There was an abandoned Saab left in the pasture to disintegrate. One summer I ripped the car’s hood off, and later the trunk. I carried these car parts up the hill to a fort I constructed in a tree that grows sideways. A perfect tree for a fort because I could rest the hood and car pieces against the tree’s trunk to make a small shelter underneath. Most of the parts are still there, abandoned remnants of a child’s imagination.

We owned Jersey cows. Jerseys, unlike the black and white Holsteins, are brown with big brown eyes, and the calves can be mistaken for deer. We fed them from bottles, and they liked to suck my fingers and clothes. Smooth noses and rough red tongues, with small teeth that hurt my skin when they sucked too hard.

I wonder now why we called them bossies. Maybe because in most ways, except on paper, the cows really owned us. We were subject to their needs every day all year long, which meant we rarely vacationed. I can remember only a few weekends away from the farm throughout my childhood. Even after Christmas dinner, we donned our manure-stained barn clothes and milked the cows. In many ways they controlled our lives.

We tried to give the cows freedom, but they often felt prone to take advantage of it. Jerseys are particularly adept at escaping through fences. Dad thinks Jerseys are the smartest kind of cow and therefore caused us more trouble than Holsteins would have. I don’t know if that is true or not, but Jerseys are smart, and I can’t remember many days when my Dad wasn’t repairing the fence.

One evening we finished milking and let the cows out to pasture with our usual routine. As we scraped manure into the gutter and swept the aisles, I looked up to see a cow looking in the window at me, from outside the fenced-in pasture.

“Ughhh. The cows are out!” I yelled.

Mom and Dad looked up, and there they stood; the whole herd peering in the windows of the barn. I could almost see them grinning. So began a night of chasing cows.

Some nights there were calls at 2 a.m.

“Uh, sorry to bother you, but your cows are on the road,” they would say.

“Yeah, well we’ll just get right on that,” we’d reply.

We found cows drinking out of birdbaths on my grandparents’ lawn, which was adjacent to the pasture, and even cows on my grandparents’ deck. We found cows in the garden and miles down the road.

Persephone escaped so often, Dad had to rig two canoe paddles around her neck so she became too wide to squeeze through holes in the fence. She must have been the instigator of the escape incidents, because the paddle invention solved the problem for a while.

The cows were loving like pets in so many ways. Each had her own personality. Vanna Kay loved green apples. In the summer we picked them for her, and she would eat as many as we gave her. Some were bossy and some were gentle. Some gave hugs by wrapping their head and neck around my body.

Every summer until I was 15, I took cows to the county fair and won ribbons. The first one I took was a year-old heifer. I think she was in heat because she got away from me, knocked me over, and stepped on my face. There was a perfect hoof print on my cheek made out of blood.

I bathed the cows at the fair with a hose and bucket of suds. I lathered and scrubbed until their Jersey brown hair became soft and shiny. Then I used clippers to shave off excess hair on their neck and body. I had to wear white clothes when showing them, but despite how clean the cows were, my white clothes still became dirty. For months before the fair I practiced leading the cows around the barnyard on a halter. If they followed me on their halters at the fair without budging and refusing my lead, I received extra points for showmanship. The judges looked to see if they were well-bred with good bone structure and the right body type. On several occasions, the judges liked the cows I brought to the fair and we left with grand-champion ribbons.

Except for Crystal, the one that stepped on me, the cows I took to the fair became my favorites. Monica Val went three years in a row. I have never loved a cow as much as Monica Val. She was sweet and loving from the day she was born. She didn’t grow as much as most cows and became the runt of the herd. I suppose it endeared her to me all the more.

The problem with dairy farming is the attachment to the cows. I couldn’t figure out how not to be attached unless they were mean. But some, through no fault of their own, were not star producers, or became sick and old. And when this happened, purely because it cost us too much to keep them, we had to “ship” them. This is the nice way of saying they became meat. Whenever possible we had someone slaughter them on the farm. It seemed less wrong if we simply led them outside and then pulled a trigger to their head. Quick. No suffering. But even now, so many years later, my heart still breaks to think about it because they trusted us and we betrayed them. Now an adult, I cry as hard as I did when I was twelve, thinking about when we shipped Jasmine because one of her teats didn’t give milk. One day I came to do chores, and she was gone. Another cow, Gwendolyn, refused to get up one day. We tried lifting her, prodding her, and finally shocking her, but she would not get up. Maybe she gave up on life.

I left whenever they came to slaughter a cow on the farm and cringed at the circle of blood that remained on the ground when I returned.

But the most painful memories are of those cows slaughtered away from the farm. They were loaded on a truck that smelted unfamiliar and taken to some building and led around through wooden tunnels. And then shot? Or shocked? I can imagine their fear. And cows know fear. I have seen it when their eyes dart and skin twitches. They know pain. I guess the joys of farm life seemed less joyous when faced with the reality that we needed to make a living. We couldn’t make a living if we fed and supported every cow until she died of old age. The reality of farming, however, was such that no matter what we did, we still couldn’t make a decent living.

When my parents started farming in 1977, the price for milk was fairly high. They said dairy farming was a popular way to make a living. But in the eighties, prices fell. As I teamed to bottle-feed the calves, I learned to protest. I protested eating vegetables, going to the barn, wearing pants, and then I learned to protest milk prices. My father and I traveled to the state capital in Madison with several other farmers belonging to a group called Farm Unity Alliance. They wanted to talk to the governor about the low milk prices. We unrolled our sleeping bags in the middle of the capital building on the second floor, which gave us a bird’s eye view of the capital’s Christmas tree. Government employees, tourists, and news-people walked around us and some stopped to ask why we were there, but no one made us move. One day I sat in on a meeting with the governor. He shook my hand, but we were never paid any better.

While the farms around us were forced out of business, crazy things started happening. One farmer drove his herd of cows to the bank that foreclosed on him. He unloaded them on the steps and left them there; “You want ’em? You can have ’em,” he said. Others, including my parents, dumped thousands of gallons of milk from their bulk tanks one day. The farmers were paid so little for their milk, it became worthless. They wanted to show that unless they were paid better, it did not matter if they could sell the milk or not. I watched as a hard day’s work and my parents’ dream washed across the floor and down the drain.

When I was growing up, the farms around us were all family run. Usually fifty cows or less. All of my parents’ friends were farmers. But today there are few family farms. Most sold their farms, and the rest expanded. Now some have over 1,000 cows. Two-tenths of one percent of the U.S. can call themselves a family farm. A century ago, farmers made up 38 percent of the labor force. The farmers today are paid the same per pound of milk as they were thirty years ago, yet it costs more to produce a product. Subsidies amounting to 2.2 billion dollars a year from the government go towards the corporate farms. The corporate farms cause increased land degradation from soil run-off and over-grazing. Some of the corporate farms I have seen are nothing more than fields of mud with feeder bins in the middle, where the cows stand next to each other with no room to budge. Maybe the advent of agriculture and the Green Revolution were the beginning of the end, but corporate agriculture is the beginning of our real demise.

Throughout my entire life I watched my parents struggle to pay bills and make ends meet with their farm. For many years they both worked outside jobs during the day, between the morning and evening chores. My dad was a social worker and my mom worked on another farm, then later went back to school for a teaching degree. My dad wanted to keep the cows if it was the last thing he did, but there were three kids and farming didn’t include benefits. He dreamed of “living off the land.” After twenty years of physical farm labor, he had to have an operation on his shoulder and later his knee. Finally, in 1998, these martyrs for the family farm movement auctioned off their last cow. Now the barn stands empty, gathering dust. The fields are overgrown, and the farm machinery rusts away.

I loved our cows in Wisconsin. When I return home, I expect to see cows running through the pasture towards the fence, curious about whomever is arriving home. But they are not there. My visions of brown eyes and swaying udders are merely ghosts haunting my mind.

However, there are farmers still living off the land, still living the dream, who deserve that life and need support to live that life. I miss the farm, and though I will not be a farmer, I hope that others will. I became too attached to those cows and yet not attached enough. I am not the innocent farm child I once was. As Wisconsin has changed, I have changed with it.

I miss walking in the pasture with brown beasts on all sides of me and the curiosity in their eyes. I miss feeding Vanna Kay green apples. I miss letting the calves suck on my fingers, frustrated and bellowing because no milk comes out. I miss walking from my house to the barn, a half-mile away. In summer the hills rolling and green, and in winter my toes so cold I could not feel them.

I have a connection to our land. I have plowed the fields and felt the earth in my hands. It smells musty and rich and turns my fingernails black. I have watched corn grow tall and become lost in the cornfields when the stalks grew taller than me.

I have called in the cows. I miss calling in the cows.

 

© Erin Altemus