Cow therapy.

Now that the risk of frost is behind us, vegetable production is taking up more and more of our time. While farming is nearly always a busy occupation, June is a uniquely hectic time here at Hawthorne Valley Farm; we have seeding to do, both in the greenhouses and in the fields, and there are seemingly endless seedlings outgrowing their containers and begging to be transplanted. With all the rain we’ve been getting, the weeds are growing at an overwhelming pace, and on top of it all, our first CSA distribution day is quickly approaching, so harvesting will soon take up much of our time. With vegetable growing in high gear, it means that as an apprentice, I’m spending three weeks out of the month seeding, transplanting, weeding, putting up fences, installing irrigation lines, etc. and only one week working with the cows, who I spent all winter growing to know and love.

Baby cow!

Being in the barn this week after such a long respite, I must say, involved some adjustment. Things with the cows are never static—over the course of her lactation, the amount of milk she produces will change, as will the time it takes to milk her; her behavior may also change, and she may become more or less liable to kick while being milked. There were also some major changes in the cows’ routine since I last worked with them—they are now sleeping outside on pasture instead of in the barn, so we must rise before sunrise and bring them in for milking, and stay later in the evening to walk them to pasture and to clean the barn in preparation for the following morning. There are generally fewer chores to be done since we no longer feed them any hay and they are spending less time in the barn and thus making less mess, but this work is replaced by the perpetual moving of fences and hoses and water troughs.

The greatest adjustment for me, though, has been in my own mental state. The springtime bustle of the vegetable side of the farm doesn’t translate to the cows; they are as unhurried as ever, and they still require me to be deliberate and intentional in all our interactions. They are creatures of habit, relatively predictable, and it was only during moments of human sloppiness that chaos ensued. For example, one day this week I neglected to check whether a particular gate was closed, and so the herd went into the wrong pasture. I was cleaning up in the barn and totally unaware, until a couple of older cows returned to the barn, mooing frantically, alerting me that something was wrong. I’m also much more successful during milking when I am “present” with the cows; each one requires a slightly different approach, and will react positively or negatively to me depending on my gait, my tone of voice, and the balance of gentleness and force of my touch.

Emy milking a cow.

They have their own moods, too, and I need to detect them, or risk them kicking a machine or me (I have received more than one hoof-inflicted bruise).

My worst cow-related injury to date; Mary gave me a swift kick to the hip during milking, giving me a nasty bruise and actually drawing blood.

It can be exhausting, needing to be “in the moment” all the time like this, but I also find it refreshing; my proclivity is always to have half my mind on what I’m doing and half in my head, daydreaming, planning, worrying about one thing or another, or replaying some interpersonal drama (real or imagined). Being with the cows, I am forced out of that habit, and I feel like a more well-balanced person for it.

Believe it or not, they have even succeeded in making me more of a morning person. In my old life in Montreal, there were nights when I didn’t make it home until 4 a.m., and now my alarm goes off at that time on mornings when I milk. I have been pleasantly surprised by how well I have adapted to this routine—it has become one of my favorite times of day, being up and about on the farm before the sun or other people are up. I love coming into the pasture while the cows are asleep, just large, shadowy mounds in the tall grass. I gently call to them, “Come on cows, wake up cows,” and one by one, they roust themselves and wander towards the barn. Sometimes an older cow will join me in my calling, mooing to gather the herd.

Cows on pasture at dusk.

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