Yesterday we came back from a few days staying on a dairy farm north of the city. We rented a bungalow that looked out over the run down farmhouse and out-buildings. Everything looked like it needed some love, the paint was peeling on the barns, overhead wiring between the buildings looked perilous. There was slurry on the roads and mud you could lose a boot in. We arrived there in howling wind and torrential rain, but after such a relaxed Christmas, our spirits would not be dampened. In fact the space and the farmland and the view of the sea was just what we wanted. The wind hardly let up - so much so, that it was sometimes hard to catch your breath - but the sun did come out and the light of the early sunrise and sunset was amazing. And our friendly farmer wanted to talk corn prices and agricultural politics and show us the farm where he'd grown up. It was the perfect place for my puddle jumping, mud-loving children!
In the place where I grew up, my next door neighbour was a dairy farmer. The herd of fresians rubbed their necks on our garden fence, their black and white backs were dotted about the fields around our home, we smelt their muck and trod in their cowpats. In the spring we heard their braying when their calves were taken from them. In the autumn, we picked the mushrooms that grew out of their manure. When we camped in the field once I was convinced they were gnawing on our guy ropes but the tent did not fall down so it must have been their noisy chewing of the cud. So I have slept just yards from a cow but in spite of this proximity, I had never seen one milked. And since I'm nursing at the moment myself, I had a new level of respect for these animals as we observed them from the 'pit' in the milking parlour. The invitation came from our accommodating host and was seized upon happily by all of us. But when you are eye level with a swollen udder, heavy and veined, a few things happen. First, you realise how big a cow actually is, then you become extremely thankful you are not also a cow with their heavy gait and weighty milk-producing burden, and you promptly have a new appreciation for a simple glass of milk and vow never again to let it go off by leaving it out overnight or let it spill across the table from a clumsy hand.
Through a circular piece of glass you could see the milk pulsing out of the udders. The farmer talked about the iodine used to prevent infections like mastitis. I winced with the memory of it. He told us the herd were more productive if they listened to music they recognised. A tinny sounding Latin jazz from the local Hispanic radio channel could be heard from a speaker strung over a beam on the ceiling. Don't all the parenting books tell us, you nurse better when relaxed? I looked on in awe, safe behind the iron rails that held the cows in place. Then I got a splash of cow pee and decided to retreat a little closer to the door of our observation 'pit' - poor Jack was strapped to me in a carrier after all. Not deterred by any of this, Max and Oli wanted to see the calves. Aged between two weeks and three months, they were being weaned in little tents nearby. Their coats were clean and fluffy as they jumped around their muddy pens. They stuck their noses through the fencing and sucked the farmers hands in the absence of their mothers. Max wanted to kiss them. Oli wanted to put them on the BBQ. 'Me eat that cow' he said, pointing at one whose pink nose was spotted with black, as if she'd stuck it in an ink well. 'Me dream 'bout cows' he told us this morning and I didn't really think to ask what kind of dream it was. We offered both boys a beefburger for lunch today and in contrast to Oli's gastronomic take on his farm experience, our future vegetarian declined for both of them, 'That's a waste of a cow' Max said.