The air is dark and velvety thick with steam. As you look closer through the haze you can see the contended swish of a tail and consistent cud chewing of numerous cows.
The temperature hovers around -15 F outside, and in the cow barn it’s still not much warmer than zero. (The milking parlor area does need to stay above freezing though.)
The cows do quite well in this weather as long as they’ve got walls to block the wind and plenty of feed. On cold nights like this, where the steam rises off each animal, you can fully appreciate just how big and warm each cow is. Suddenly a large black nose bumps behind me, and I look back to see a familiar white stripe.
Pepé Le Pew – aka Pepé – is standing quietly behind me, and she’d like some attention.
Cows definitely have varying personalities, and most are happy to co-exist with people without too much extra interaction. They are creatures of habit. As long as you calmly walk behind them and keep to a steady routine for milking and feeding they will be more than content. An occasional animal is naturally more friendly, and if they are handled often as calves they usually become tamer. Cattle can also be taught to lead on a halter – attending anything from a county fair to an international breed show.
Our cows mostly stay home, but that doesn’t stop some from being quite affectionate! Pepé is one of these; you may remember me writing about her several months back.
As a milk cow she is settling in very well. She is definitely a “boss cow” and her herd mates will easily follow her lead. She is milking well too, above average in fact, especially for a first lactation cow. A lactation just means a milking timeframe. A cow is in her first lactation after she has her first calf, her second lactation after her second calf, and so on.
Right now Pepé is producing about 120 pounds of milk per day. (I still don’t know why farmers measure milk in pounds, but it is always the norm.) In gallons that’s around fourteen. She’s probably about at her peak, and that amount will taper off slowly until she dries up before having another calf. Her mother was also a good milk cow, and milk production traits have a strong genetic component. Cows must also eat, drink, and rest well to produce well, and Pepé is a champ in that department.
Pepé actually had her calf back on January 5th, but I didn’t announce the news here because I was too blue. She had a little black bull calf who didn’t make it. She delivered in the wee hours and the calf was either stillborn or alive for only a very short time. I’ll never know exactly what was wrong, and that is tough. It seriously feels awful.
Unfortunately death is something you are forced to deal with on a farm. Life and death. They are both part of reality. It’s true we are a larger farm with hundreds of milk cows, but that would never stop us from caring about each one. Just because we can accept the reality doesn’t mean we don’t feel the hurt. I would say that’s true on farms of all sizes.
Even though it’s hard every time we lose a calf, in some ways it does force me to focus on what’s real. Our culture overall is so afraid of death. I know people are very different from animals, but the process of learning to grieve, give thanks, and eventually move on is universal.
I hope Pepé will have a healthy calf next time, but in the meantime I will remember to be thankful she is doing well and that the vast majority of our calves are born trouble-free and healthy.
I think Pepé personifies the term “gentle giant!”