Sparrow is my sweet little heifer calf that was born to my milk cow, Lilly, back in August. Every evening, she gets separated from her mama so that when I go to milk in the mornings, there is some milk for me, too. Otherwise she runs with the herd all of the time, by Lilly’s side. And she is a spunky little thing that has required some patience when it comes to the “catching” each evening. But cows are creatures of serious rhythm and routine, and she is beginning to learn the ropes. She is almost (almost) to the point of walking herself to the stanchion in the evenings when she sees me coming to fetch her. We’re making real progress, anyhow. Well, a couple of nights ago when I tied her to the stanchion for the night, she walked herself right around and put her head through the head catch, just like she has seen her mama do so many times now. I spent some time rubbing her down, cooing to her a bit, and rubbing her tiny little udder. She seems to know what her future roll is going to be! I don’t think I ever realized just how special my little cow friend was going to be to me. My buddy, Sparrow…
I hardly know where to start, or where to end, if you know what I mean.
My dear sweet milk cow, Lilly, calved (or “freshened”, as milk cow owners might say) on Friday afternoon. Fridays are also our “harvest days” which already carry their own heft. So add to that a calving of a dairy animal, and the day gets a little more weighty. And just for fun, kind of like the cherry on top, let’s throw into the medley a sick kid with glossy eyes, a raging fever, and a wickedly sore throat. (The kind of sore that makes him awaken multiple times in the night in a state of delirium, gagging on the developing snot, asking… no begging… me to “get something to cut off this thing in my throat!!!” Lovely.)
That was Friday. Friday night found me seriously sleep deprived and sleeping at the foot of my boy’s bed, half on half off, offering any motherly comfort I could muster in those wee hours. Plus, I have found that I have great accuracy in gauging a child’s temperature by feeling the soles of their feet. So sleeping at the foot of beds when fever is lurking is a form of doctoring for me. Yes, strange. That’s ok with me though.
Ira’s sickness became apparent to me about half an hour after Lilly calved. Often on Fridays, the kids will often go over to my super heroic neighbor’s house (she just has one child still at home, and is willing to add three more wild n’ crazies to her day!!!) to play. I was headed over to pick up the kids, and, as I was in the habit of doing, stopped on the way to check on Lilly. As soon as I stepped out of the van, from quite a distance, I could see she was calving. So I quietly crept into the paddock, and knelt down in the shade near where she was calving. Not too close, but close enough to see the action. In a short amount of time, Lilly’s hard work was done. I stuck around long enough to see the calf’s attempts at standing, and then at nursing. Seeing that all was well, I then proceeded to pick up the kids. As soon as I laid eyes on my boy, though, I knew he wasn’t feeling quite up to snuff.
By this point, it is late Friday afternoon. Very early Saturday morning is departure time for market. Therefore, a very quick re-negotiating of our market plans was in order. Fortunately, our farm neighbors and helpers, Jesse and Hannah, were already in Nashville and totally willing to pull off our market for us (they help at market all the time, so they very much know the program). Eric just had to deliver all of our market stuff and produce, help with set up, and drive back home. That left me with all morning farm chores. And three kids, one of whom was ill. I will spare you the details, but by 8 am, I was ready for a serious break.
At some point on Saturday, we realized Opal was going down like her brother. Not long after that, Olivia began showing signs of illness. Sunday afternoon, I could feel my own head swelling like a balloon, and to swallow was a trial. But that’s about enough of that.
Miss Lilly calved a beautiful, spunky, little heifer calf. Through and through, a little Jersey. The calving was flawless. Lilly’s mothering was flawless. And then, in I step to totally screw up the perfection… or at least challenge it severely. As I have said before, I am not experienced at milking a cow. In the past, now many years past, the chore has always fallen to Eric. At that point in time, I was kind of like a family milk cow myself, fully lactating and fully aware of the physical intensity of lactating “on demand”. To then milk another lactating animal felt like more than my brain could wrap around. So Eric took the cow milking chore back in the day.
Now. Now I have had this funny little notion that I want to milk a cow. I want the daily rhythm of it. The commitment. The new learning curve. And the challenge to figure out what to do in the kitchen with all of that milk. That is, if I could only get all of that milk. I am proving to be not the best at milking yet. I think Lilly has more milk sprayed up and down her hind legs than I actually get into the pail. And I am thankful that milk is such an excellent fertilizer, because the pasture around where I am milking is getting a good coating. But, for the sake of a little self-preservation, I would like to remember that my milking learning curve is also coinciding with three sick children and not feeling so great myself. (Here I will give myself a comforting pat on the back.)
I will say that, slowly but surely, my hands are learning the motion. Each time I milk, my shoulders better endure the burning. (Many times I have thought back to those 80’s Jane Fonda exercise videos where she seductively encourages one to “make it burn” while making arm circles in her little striped leotard and leg warmers. I wonder if she has ever milked a cow and, if so, how that burning compares to the burning those arm circles create? I guess I feel pretty grateful that my burning is also earning me some milk! No offense Jane, I will stick with my cow.)
On Monday evening when milking, I called in Eric to help me get the chore done. Lilly was really kicking, maybe her udder was feeling sensitive or maybe the flies were bugging her, I’m not really sure, but the kicks and constant need to protect the milk pail were wearing me out. Between us we had nearly a gallon of milk. The best amount yet. Then Lilly pooped a big pile, stepped back into it, then stepped with great accuracy right into the milk pail. Gross. You say, “don’t cry over spilt milk” right? I say, “step back or I might punch you.” Regardless of the intense frustration I was feeling, I dumped the soiled milk into the pasture. I remained calm and stuck with it a while longer. I maybe got another pint (that’s just two cups) of milk, after a couple of hours of the chore. When I got to the house, I strained my meager little amount into a cup, I figured it wasn’t necessary to dirty a jar, and stuck it into the refrigerator.
Guess what? In the morning, when I was looking for a little cream to put into my coffee, I saw that cup of milk. It had a heavy layer of cream on it. Just enough for my coffee. What a blessing. That might have been the best cup of coffee I’ve ever earned.
Now, with a few more days of milking under my belt, and with health and well-being returning to my brood (and myself), I am feeling more settled with milking Lilly. I can feel the wonderful and beautiful relationship developing with this special creature that gives so much goodness which will nourish not just her calf, but my family, too.
The cream rises, friends. Not just in my accumulating jars of milk, but in life in general… becoming richer (like the rising cream) each day, even through serious obstacles and over high hurdles. It all just keeps getting better and better, even when it’s not plainly obvious. Life is rich. We just have to take the time to skim a little of that goodness off the top, and let it nourish us.
This evening after supper, I went for a rare walk all by myself. I had been gone from the farm most of the day and I needed (wanted) to go up to the pasture to check on Lilly one last time before night fell. She is due to calve any moment now and I’m kind of obsessed with her progress. Once she calves, my daily routine is going to experience a major shift and I want to be as ready as I can be for that change. Experienced milk-maid I am not.
When I arrived at the animal’s paddock, the sun was heading quickly for the horizon. Soft pink wisps of clouds reached through the western sky like fingers. I think every single cow’s and sheep’s head was bent towards the ground, contentedly grazing. A few stray heads raised up at the sound of my approach, pausing momentarily from their supper to greet me with blank, unquestioning stares. There’s probably over 200 critters in that paddock right now, but the amount of noise coming from all of those animals was minimal. Just the sound of hooves gently moving about and grass being ripped, bite by bite. (It makes me wonder just how it is that my three small children are capable of such volume?!!!!) I noticed that Lilly had stopped her grazing and found a comfortable spot to lay down with a few other cows.
I’m not sure there is anything more peaceful than a cow laying in a high grassy pasture under a pink sky on a warm summer evening, ruminating. Heaven is right here on earth, indeed.
I stepped quickly over the hot fence to avoid getting shocked, and meandered through the sea of sheep to where Lilly was resting. I sat down beside her in the pasture and felt her peace. I thought my busy thoughts and wondered about why humans get swept up in such busyness. Too bad we weren’t designed to be ruminants… I think this world would be an entirely different place.
As I sat with Lilly, her peace radiated. I couldn’t help but sense that she might be in the early throes of labor, but maybe it was just my eager imagination. As much as I felt drawn to just lay down in the grass and sleep with the herd, my own precious little herd of noisy non-ruminants was pulling my strings homeward. So I left the pasture and walked the dusty dirt road back to the house; back to pajamas and bedtime kisses, teeth-brushing and drinks of water… and eventually a quiet, dark house and a little time for my own style of ruminating.