“Cows are just gentle souls,” Dan James remarks, lanky frame sprawled in a grassy field dotted with manure. The morning sun has just lifted off the eastern ridges and it seems he’s been rehearsing this line, maybe just today, or perhaps his whole life. “They’re just made to graze on grass,” he says by way of explanation. And this is exactly what the small group of Jersey cows are doing, balancing bulky, rectangular bodies on stout legs, bending down to clamp grass between lower teeth and monolithic, toothless upper gums. “They don’t nibble down to the base like horses with opposable teeth; they grab and tear, which helps the grass regenerate,” James points out. Their calves — bearing artistic smatterings of caramel brown and white fur — born just weeks ago, are sacked out in the sun.
James is relaxed this morning. The daily milking is complete and the cows are behaving as dairy cows should. (The term “cows” refers to any female who has calved. Previously, she is a heifer). In fact, it is highly likely that one year ago James was in this very same field, feeling a similar sense of relief and satisfaction, gazing out across an identical scene, complete with Canada goose dramatics at the lower pond and red-tailed hawks cruising the thermals. (Note: cattle ranching is not for novelty seekers). “They act in unison; that’s what you want to see,” James explains. “Right now, they’re all up and grazing with an eye on their sleeping calves. Soon, they’ll all lie down and chew their cud for a few hours. If a coyote approaches, they’ll all get on their feet and move it off.”
One of the gentle souls lumbers slowly toward us. I expect her to turn and amble off at the last minute like I’ve seen cows on forest service land do. But she shuffles forward, her paunchy udder a spectacular appendage of utility, four knobby spouts protruding from the drooping mass of it. The tag pierced to her fuzzy ear marks her as “Rose.” Rose pushes her snout toward me, wet nostrils flared, hot breath on my face. Eyelashes that can only be described as lustrous brush her large, glossy eyes. The longer, light hairs surrounding her nose are backlit by the sun. “She’s curious about you,” James explains. Rose inhales my scent, and luckily, is satisfied. She carries her 900-pound bulk off to graze. The morning routine can continue.
In child-raising, farming, and cattle ranching, theories suggest that results will be most efficient if you utilize the patterns and features existing naturally within system (think permaculture). Rather than laboriously tilling manure into soil, which destroys the underground fungal network that funnels nutrients to plants, one can simply add organic matter to the soil surface and let the nutrients percolate down. In the bovine paradigm, rather than forcing cows via cattle prod into situations that go against their nature (provoking fear, which James believes taints the quality of the milk), one can observe their behavior and look for ways to enhance strengths, compensate for weaknesses, and work with what James calls, “their natural way of being.”
“We milk six cows at a time, April through November. In the milking barn, there are certain cows that aren’t comfortable being on the end, and others who can’t be next to each other.” (This could be the Jeopardy game show clue for the answer: How is a cow like a middle school student?). “It all works out,” James assures. “We just have to remember the best line up. First Brooke, then Sara, then Rose. If you get it wrong, you get pooped on.” Getting pooped on might be par for the course in mega-dairy operations, but James is willing to put work in on the front end to create better conditions on the back end, so to speak. Poop in the milk stall creates extra clean up and less hygienic conditions.
The cows have folded up their legs, lowering massive tawny bodies to the meadow. They are preparing to ruminate, a brilliant strategy to wring nutrients out of stringy cellulose. In their pre-domesticated forms, cows were prey, and like elk and deer, also ruminants, it’s safest to feed quickly then retreat to a protected vantage for hours of digesting, where all senses can be deployed to track predators. When grazing, a cow chews just enough to moisten the food, sending it to the first of four digestive chambers, the rumen, where it forms into fist-sized wads of “cud.” Later, the cud is shuttled back to the mouth via the two-lane esophagus. Now, eyes, ears, and nose tuned to predators, the cow has a second go at it. She masticates the cud further as the sun arcs overhead and James appraises the predictable wholesomeness of it all. Digestive juices are added, grass particles get smaller, increasing surface area for the bacterial festival of fermentation unleashed in the second chamber. In the third chamber, excess moisture is squeezed out, and finally, in the last chamber, enzymes and hydrochloric acid put the finishing touches on the digestive job. Grass fuels a half-ton beast, becoming milk and muscle. And then, the cows rise to their feet and begin again.
James is not casually committed to cows. He understands the intricate machinations of a cow’s rumen (“This is where the magic happens,” he explains, eyes igniting like twin engines. Indeed, for a dairyman, this is where straw is spun into the gold of milk); he can parse the subtle meanings of different vocalizations (“That’s a ‘where’s my baby?’ moo, this is an ‘I’m in pain’ moo,”); he can send a pipette of bull semen past a cow’s cervix and square into her uterus; and he knows each cow in the herd as an individual.
Three-year-old Zara thinks every calf is hers. “This is how she is every year,” James sighs with unmistaken tenderness. Newborn calves must be separated from Zara because she can co-opt a less-dominant mother’s calf. Lana is a helicopter mom. “You know, overprotective, the way a lot of us were with our first children,” James smiles. “Lana’s calf, when he sees his mom coming, is like, ‘Oh my God, here comes mom. Hide me.’” Gigi’s calf, already a leader at two weeks old, commences the all-calf post-sunset romp each evening. It’s like we’re discussing the local mothers’ playgroup, and if it seems that James is playing the sentimental grandparent, make no mistake, this is a business.
“These little boys are gonna grow up and be delicious,” James says, motioning to Gigi’s playful calf, curled up in the grass, fawn-like, rib cage rising and falling rapidly with breath. “I do this so you don’t have to,” James says. “I castrate and dehorn so you can be a CPA — I don’t want to do that.”
It seems there is a region of James’ brain — a cluster of neurons collectively active for the past 10,000 years that humans have been agriculturalists — which for most of us have atrophied. He can provide quality milk and meat to an omnivorous society, while upholding an animal’s dignity. For James, these two goals are not incongruous. He accommodates a cow’s individuality, gives her a cow-happy life, feels unmistaken tenderness toward her, and without any sentimentality, sends her to the meat packer when it’s time.
“You want to pet him?” James motions to a white and brown calf, hair coalescing into a swirl on the height of his back. “Was I that obvious?” I wonder. We approach the calf and James corrals him in his long, elasticized arms, and invites me forward. The calf’s hide is soft and sun-warmed, and he squirms and ducks his head, signifying that he is not a pet. This same calf follows us off the field, through the cows that now are lying down ruminating, and over the bridge across the ditch. His mother rises to her feet, though casually gazes off in the opposite direction. “What’s up with that mom, letting her baby get this far?” I ask. James isn’t concerned. “Trusting,” he says shrugging, already moving on to the next chore of the day.