Wednesday, March 6, 2013

more lessons from the dairy

My last post was getting a bit long, so here's part 2 of lessons from the dairy :0)

A) Competition can bring out traits you never knew existed--and what works for one may not work for another!
~When my parents bought the farm (wow, that comes across a bit strange--maybe I should say "purchased"...), a Border Collie came with it. His name was Jimbo, and he was incredibly timid--so much so that he was sharing his doghouse with a litter of kittens when we moved in. Border Collies are great herding dogs to be sure, but Jimbo didn't know us and he seemed unsure of himself around the cows.
     On the other hand, we brought with us a Great Dane & German Shepherd mix named Duke. He was a huge black dog with more energy than he knew what to do with and a major chocolate addiction. His tongue was huge, and when he ran it flew out of the side of his mouth, waving like a flag, causing him to run crooked to compensate.
     Duke thought the cows looked like great fun. Until we moved to the farm, his playmates were all cats. These cows seemed like much more fun, especially the babies that were all about his size. That thought got him into trouble a few times: once he ran across the pasture chasing a calf, trying to play. You know how I mentioned that Holsteins have big personalities and really love their babies? Well, we saw both traits that day--Duke ran one direction across the pasture after the calf, then the next thing we saw was him running the other direction with an entire dairy herd on his tail.
     Duke was definitely not a herder by nature, though he obviously wanted to be. He would get behind the herd and bark to move them, which worked for a little while. It seemed like before long the Holsteins realized he was all talk, though, and his barks stopped working.
     Meanwhile, timid Jimbo decided he wasn't letting this newcomer take over his job and he began working the cows again. Border Collies are crazy quick, and their favorite way to move cows is by nipping at their heels then darting out of the way before one of those big hooves makes contact. Duke, always a quick study, saw that Jimbo's method worked a lot better than barking and immediately tried to copy it. The problem was, Duke wasn't quite quick enough. Biting heels worked a time or two on the more timid cows that didn't feel like fighting back, but the first cow who kicked at him caught Duke square between the eyes. Talk about learning the hard way!
     After that, though, Duke figured out that he could nip at the back of their knees and get the reaction he wanted from the herd. Jimbo seemed to thrive from the competition he got from Duke, and Pop ended up with a couple of pretty good cow dogs--though one of them was a bit unconventional in his methods!

B) You can get quite a tan from the seat of a tractor.
~A few times, the task of brush hogging fell to me. Think of it like mowing, except you're driving a tractor that looks something like this:
     It isn't the most comfortable seat, but after a while you get into a rhythm and the bouncing gets a little less jarring and, believe it or not, it actually became a peaceful place for me. The noise of the tractor would become white noise and it would be a great place to think.
     Also, at 16 and 17 years old I was a big fan of the browned skin I ended up with as a result of a couple hours on the tractor! Shorts, swimsuit top, and flipflops was usually my brush hogging uniform.

C) Calves are crazy!
~One of my main jobs was feeding calves. These are some of the sweetest babies ever, and I will probably always think Holsteins are the prettiest cows on earth. However, these adorable little babies are also some of the craziest things you'll ever see--especially when they see a bottle!
     Our bottle babies wore dog collars, and spread throughout the calf barn were a lot of chains. We also had bottle holders, because it would be absolutely impossible to feed so many calves without them. The idea was that we would hook each baby's collar to a chain, hang a bottle in front of each one, then wait while they all calmly finished their milk. Here's what usually happened, though:

We fill bottles them load them into buckets to carry down to the calf barn. Calves recognize said buckets and storm the gate, shoving each other out of the way to try to be the closest to the buckets. We open the gate as wide as we want and don't really even have to worry about chaining it closed behind us because there's no way any of these babies are running away from the milk bottles! Multiple black, white, and pink noses are shoved into the buckets, searching for and often pulling off the nipple tops. Then, one bottle is pulled from the bucket and stuck in a holder--and at least four mouths are trying to suck on it, usually finding a finger or shirt in the process. By the time one baby has gotten set up with a bottle, the chain clipped to her collar, at least one nipple top has been pulled off of a bottle. If you're lucky, the bottle is still in the bucket instead of pouring out all over the ground. Once all the babies have bottles, there is always at least one who has finished and manages to just reach the bottle next to it, stealing it away from the slightly more timid calf. That or one baby is sucking on the milk covered chin or ear of another, which isn't too bad in the summer time but gets a bit dangerous in the dead of winter.
     After the milk, the babies got grain poured out for them in a couple of low feeders. We had one calf we called Bo Peep because she looked surprisingly like a sheep--she was short and a bit squat, and she had a hard time stretching her neck over the side of the feeder. She came up with a solution, though: instead of standing beside the feeder, she would just climb in and lay down to eat.
Crazy, I tell you!

D) A pile of hay and a yellow dog make a wonderful bed.
~Hay is surprisingly warm. I remember one day being out with Pop in the winter. It must have been during Christmas break or something, because I had helped Pop milk and was waiting for him to finish putting out hay for the dry herd.
     My dog--the first one who actually belonged to just me, a present from my brother and his wife while on their honeymoon--was with me, and we were done with our work and just waiting for a ride back to the house. The remnants of a hay bale lay by the gate, so I climbed over and Teddy crawled under the gate and we lay down in the hay to wait. I snuggled down into the hay and Teddy curled up beside me, his head on my chest so he could make sure I wouldn't forget to pet him. I was cozy enough to close my eyes and half nap until the tractor got louder and was close enough for me to open the gate for Pop so we could head back to the house.

E) You get used to bossing around 1,300 pound animals quicker than you would think.
~I remember the first time I was in the holding pen with our dairy herd, having been given the task of pushing them forward into a barn they didn't know. I had no idea what I was doing, and had even less of a clue as to how a 120-pound girl was going to manage to get something 10 times her weight to go somewhere she didn't want to go.
     My first attempts were timid, and probably would have been comical to anyone who knew anything about Holsteins. I would gently poke hips or try to talk them into moving forward with a quiet voice because I was unsure of myself. Once I started pushing on them a bit harder, one girl I was just walking past decided to remind me who was bigger and kicked out beside her to kick me in the side on the knee.
     I can tell you when my attitude towards them changed, though. I was standing with one foot propped up on the bottom board of the fence, the holding pen mostly emptied. We were almost done milking, probably for one of the very first times. One of the cows that was left started walking toward me, and for a minute I froze--I had no idea what to do. She came up to me and lowered her head, and I tightened my grip on the fence so I could climb quickly. Her next move, though, showed me all I needed to know about those big, beautiful girls: she stuck her head under the back of my raised leg and started petting herself against me.
     Yup. From that moment on I realized our Holsteins, for the most part, were a bunch of big softies. By the time we stopped milking I didn't think twice about shoving my way through the herd (unless the bull was around--he was big and he scared me).

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