In England, my dad’s closest neighbors are cows. One of my favorite things about this small island is that country life is alive and well, even close to things that are more my usual style like international airports and delicious Indian restaurants. And in our case, it just takes a walk down the lane to visit these postcard-perfect black and white faces.
When the farmer and his wife invited Rodolfo and me down to help with the milking, we jumped at the chance. These people are great neighbors, so of course we were happy to lend a hand. It quickly became apparent, however, that the invitation had actually been a polite way of allowing us city slickers to check out where the white stuff in the carton comes from – our “help” was more like “trying to stay out of the way of a smoothly run operation.”
For the record, these cows all seemed perfectly happy about the process. No one forces them into the milking shed, and they stand happily munching their pellets while being milked by machines. Despite the fact that they all looked the same to us, the farmer knows each cow and takes advantage of milking time to check on any health problems and give their udders a little TLC with balm.
This knowledge of the herd is important when it comes to the best thing we saw that day – TWO WEEK OLD BABY COWS. The mothers are given antibiotics during birth, and the milk sold for people is strictly regulated to be antibiotic-free. While most of the milk goes into one general refrigerated vat, the milk from cows that have recently given birth has to be separated into buckets that go to the calves. And, in some cases, to the farm cats as well.
Speaking of those adorable babies, our reaction to them was one of many cultural differences we discovered. I, of course, couldn’t get enough. I mean look at their little faces! The farmer, on the other hand, laughed at me while explaining how actually the babies are kind of annoying – they all push and shove to drink the milk and get so enthusiastic that if you’re not careful they’ll slop it everywhere. On a farm where there’s lot of work to get done before daylight fades, time is precious, and ungainly calves causing trouble are less cute than inconvenient.
Beyond just the calves, it was clear that Rodolfo and I are not dairy farmers. We asked questions about everything, from teat unguents (blue goo) to whether they drink milk fresh out of the cow (yes, but we couldn’t because since we’re not used to it our stomachs might get upset, and it’s illegal for them to sell it that way), and were fascinated by the responses. Clearly to the farmers our questions were akin to someone asking how cars work, but it was all new to us!
Although we did not, by any stretch of the imagination, help, we were both allowed to put a machine on a cow. And, more importantly, we avoided being kicked or getting pooed on. Everyone expressed surprised afterward at how clean we were – meaning no actual cow crap on us, as we certainly reeked to high heaven – but interestingly enough no one had told me beforehand that literally getting shit on was very likely!
We’re grateful to the whole farm family for welcoming us city mice and letting us see what milking is all about. “The English countryside” as a bucolic concept is beloved around the world, but that usually means cows in green pastures rather than in dark milking sheds. It turns out, however, that even the smelly, hard work side of the equation is pretty damn cool.