Rest for the Weary
It’s 6:15 a.m., and I’m ass-deep in a thicket of stinging nettles and jumping cactus. Jer stands to my right, his hands full with my tepid morning coffee and a silver pail brought out in the hopes that we’d have extra milk to feed our pack of always hungry pigs. “That’s why you’re covered in chigger bites,” he mutters, his eye-roll perceptible in the tone of his voice. “Yea, well, chiggers or no chiggers, thorny cactus or not, this cow’s got to get milked,” I growl back. Colostrum hits my legs and dribbles heavily down my arms. It dries like egg yolk wherever it lands and gnats swarm along it’s path down my body. We are in the early stretch of summer, on the downward side of solstice, but it’s months yet before the days shorten. Spitting a gnat from my mouth and swatting a wasp that buzzes by – I miss the hibernation of winter. So help me God, I do.
My darling Clementine calved just after dusk two days ago. A storm was blowing through, barometer dropped, and I knew in my gut she was dropping that calf when the wind came howling over the empty hill where she normally stands in the morning. I ran through the pasture, ducked under gnarled mesquite, side-stepped the jumping cactus trees until I finally detected the flick of a tiny tail. Two velvet ears stuck straight out from behind a tree, and suddenly I made out the form of a cow, in miniature. She toddled two steps forward before falling with a splat next to Clementine who still sat in exhaustion. Luckily for all parties, this delivery was textbook, one I worried about for months since this was Clementine’s first calf. But she arrived safely, all legs, and enormous bug eyes, one day ahead of her late June due date. The name was easy: Junebug.
The arrival of a pure Jersey heifer calf is a good omen, in my book, as we teeter on the edge of such enormous beginnings over here. She will join the future milking herd and will be the first calf I raise from birth to be trained as a working dairy cow. This means I’m already spending an inordinate amount of time with her in the pasture, not only to quickly acclimate her to human touch, but also to quickly acclimate Clementine to milking, too. Although I spent a lot of time training Clem in the milk stand in the months leading up to delivery, she has never actually been milked. For the moment, I drop down beside her in the pasture as she stands over the fragile new calf, her udder dangerously engorged. The first week is all about ensuring the cow does not develop mastitis or edema, two serious concerns in dairy cattle as they infamously produce 4 times more milk than a new calf can consume. Clementine has stood patiently to be milked, not lifted a leg once, and I’m hopeful about her prospects as a professional milker. It is a very good thing.
This is where I focus my thoughts when I’m crouched under the humid sun. When I’m lifting a weak calf and helping her learn to nurse, as I trek through the inky pasture in 11 pm darkness, one last time, for one last check, regardless of the exhaustion that’s tugging at my legs and arms and mind. This phase of the dairy cycle is at once the hardest and most joyous. The work doubles and triples while all the other chores remain the same. The goat barn still needs mucking, the girls need milking, the dogs need feeding, the pig pen needs cleaning, the bucks’ water needs filling, the chicken scratch needs tossing, the tomatoes need roasting, garden needs watering, shots need to be given, hooves need trimming, laundry needs washing. Inserted between all that, I bend over new babies, tend the newly fresh cow, and scrub colostrum from arms that are getting stronger.
It’s true what they say, that on a farm you rest in the winter. The contrast between summer bounty and winter slumber is stark. It’s all, or it’s nothing. My friend Francesca posted on Facebook recently about how farm life keeps the body in constant motion, and it reminded me again how we are simply housed inside a complex piece of machinery designed to move. I am tired as hell, but damn it feels good to be in motion, to get stronger, get smarter – a constant work in progress. I was sedentary for years, and I’ll be sedentary again, come December.
And then, only then, will we rest.