Isabelle shows gratitude with copious drool. It’s her birthday today. She takes pieces of carrot, apple, broccoli and rutabaga from my fingers gently, her large soft lips careful and delicate against my skin. She gives each mouthful a few bites before eagerly selecting another morsel. She and I have our own hand-feeding ritual. When she sees me come up the path she waits patiently while I spend time with the chickens and pet the cats. She knows her turn is coming.
Cows eat with distinct pleasure. Given free range they wander through pastures selecting grasses with high nutrient levels, instinctively self-medicating with the right plants when ill. They choose to eat alongside favorite herd mates just as we prefer lunching with a friend. And after a meal of grass or hay or apples they digest as ruminants do, bringing up their food all over again for another chew as if to enjoy it again.
Isabelle belches in my face. It’s warm and redolent of the hay we harvested last summer. Bovine belching has gotten a bad rap (along with bovine farting) as contributing to global warming. Easy for us to blame creatures, but the problem traces right back to us. Research shows the net effect of grass-fed cattle actually slows global warming. It’s when we ignore nature’s wisdom that we create problems. You’d think we would have figured that out by now.
Grass is inedible to humans while cattle are perfectly designed to sustain themselves on this hardy plant and its dry counterpart, hay. But these days cattle are fed diets heavy in grains, protein supplements and obnoxious bulking agents such as cardboard, chicken feathers, even rotting candy by-products. These unnatural diets cause cattle a number of physical disorders, so synthetic nutrients and medications are added to their rations as well. Not surprisingly when cattle are deprived of their native pastures they exhibit signs of stress. All these negatives have a consequence.
Cows on pasture have fewer reproductive problems and produce larger, healthier calves. The more fresh grass in a cow’s diet, the more vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids and cancer fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) present in the milk.
In fact the older a cow gets, the higher the CLA in her milk, something the dairy industry doesn’t admit. That’s because dairy cows in this country don’t live long. They’re culled at three, four or maybe five years old. Overproduction, unnatural feed and confinement make them unprofitable after that age, even though cows can easily reproduce and give milk well into their teens.
Isabelle is turning eleven today. Her winter coat is beautifully thick. She chooses to spend nearly every minute outdoors. She watches the chickens as they peck underfoot and pays attention to every change in the barnyard. Her curiosity is typical of her kind. Even animal researchers were surprised to discover that cows not only effectively problem-solvers, their brainwaves indicate excitement akin to an “eureka” moment and some cows even leap in the air. Isabelle, though a middle-aged lady, regularly indulges in those leaping moments. She scampers girlishly, tossing her head and running in sheer pleasure when let into a new pasture. When she lies down to rest Malcolm the Cat likes to sleep on her warm hide.
Our cows, like so many, don’t have actual sex lives. When Isabelle goes into heat we order a straw of semen from a catalog of registered Guernsey bulls. The A.I. guy shows up, logo on his hat proudly proclaiming Semen-X, and doesn’t crack a smile at my jokes. Isabelle is a profoundly attentive mother. When her calf is young she follows it around as careful as any mother of a newborn. She nurses on demand and instructs it with nudges, head movement and a variety of vocalizations. When we were new at this we only had books to go by. Everything we read warned that leaving a calf with its mother could condemn it to suffer from “scours,” a potentially fatal condition. But we had no intention of separating mother from calf. Each of Isabelle’s calves has been significantly bigger and more vigorous than the norm with no medical problems. And we’ve always had more than enough milk for our family while she nurses her calf for a year.
The strong bond between cow and calf forces us to recognize that modern practices take a profound toll. One day we were at a nearby dairy when farmhands came to take a day old calf from its mother. As the men approached, a dozen other cows in the pen encircled the mother and calf. Their struggle to protect one of their own and the subsequent bawling was heart rending. All around us dairy farms use “calf huts” where the calves are isolated and fed milk replacer. A few feet away their motherslive confined indoors eating lifeless food while their sensitive noses can smell nearby unused pastures with health-giving grass waving in the wind. Changing agriculture back to more sustainable, compassionate methods has a lot to do with changing minds. The perfect circle represented by sun, food and sustenance must be reconnected.
But today it’s Isabelle’s birthday. Maybe we should celebrate as she does. She leaves the barn to stay outside under blue skies. She pays attention to everything in the natural world around her. Soon she’ll bring up those apples and carrots to chew again, reminder of a meal offered by loving hands. Chances are good she’ll belch. A good birthday. A good day, every day.