HONEY ROCK DAWN

Winter Milking

Yesterday, we woke up to four inches of snow and a sky full of flakes, more inches piling up by the hour, and it was beautiful, of course, but incredibly disheartening because this has been a hard winter and I had allowed myself to believe that we were done with the snow and done with the mud (it had finally dried out!), but no. We’re back in winter for a while. And while this winter has been so hard, one thing I’ve loved, deeply and unexpectedly, is winter milking.

Milking, for me, is like exercise is for many – one of those things that you never look forward to and only make yourself do because you have to, but then, when you’re in it, when you’re doing it, you’re filled with so much joy and happiness it seems impossible not to look forward to doing it again the next day. Often, when I’m milking Daisy, I think to myself, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to just quit everything and become a milkmaid?” These romantic daydreams last as long as the milking session and vanish when I’m done, replaced, in the space between milkings, by another thought: “omg, I am so sick of milking.”

Milking is a chore, a chore that extends beyond the actual act of milking – there is the washing of the milk pails and cups and glass gallon jars every single day. There is the cow wrangling and the udder washing and the post-milking thank you brushing of the cow. There is the toting of the the brush and washcloths and warm soapy water and hay and halter and treats and milk pail and cup to the milking area and the lugging of it all back to the house when done (but for the hay and treats). In winter, there is the ritual of layering up – layer after layer after layer to ensure warmth while sitting in the snow for nearly an hour. And there is the task of making sure the cow is peaceful and happy or distracted and entertained, and, even if she is none of those things on any given day, that she at least stands still.

In the past, this last part has been the most challenging part of milking for me. Daisy loves her babies and is so devoted to them, in previous years she has treated me as a kind of milk thief. The best word to describe her attitude towards my milking was begrudging. Or rather, on the best days, she was begrudging, and on the worst days, she was mean. She’d try to kick me, or she’d tap dance for an hour, making the act of milking as difficult as possible for me, or she’d hold back her milk. Cows can do that! They can refuse to let down their milk and will save it for their calves, even though dairy cows produce far, far more milk than any single calf could ever need. When Daisy would pull this trick, I’d have to bring her baby alongside me, give it a teat, and then race the calf, milking as quickly as I could so the calf wouldn’t drain the teat it had been given, then steal my teats, leaving me to trudge home with a measly cup or two of milk.

This year has been different. It’s been so remarkably different, I wonder if, after her miscarriage and before we got Mara, Daisy accepted me as her baby and now I’m equally as entitled to milk as her bovine baby. She’s treating me as if this is so. This year, she has not tap danced while I’ve milked, not once. She stands perfectly still and eats or meditates while I milk, just as she does when nursing a calf. Sometimes, she falls asleep. With Daisy so calm and peaceful, I sit at her feet and rest my head and shoulders against her warm belly while I milk. Rocked gently by her breath, there are times I almost fall asleep, too.

If Daisy wants to shift the position of her hind legs, particularly the leg I’m sitting next to, she no longer uses this as an excuse to whack me as she’s done in years past. Instead, she will raise her leg, draw her hoof up and in towards the center of her body, slowly move it forward in a semicircular arc, and then set it down on the ground again. With this maneuver, she is actively avoiding disturbing me or my milking. She is making sure she does not kick me as she shifts her feet. She is being so considerate! And she hasn’t held back her milk. It flows freely into my pail. I am blessed.

All of this means milking has been incredibly peaceful and meditative for me, even in the depths of winter. I don’t really notice I’m sitting in the snow, not while I’m warmed by Daisy and watching the colors of the sky as the sun rises or sets, and listening to the birds return as the weeks pass, and looking up at Daisy’s sweet face, her eyes half shut, her posture relaxed, chewing her cud. It’s been a chance to bond more profoundly with Daisy each day. Sometimes I break from milking and lean against her and sip her warm milk from a cup, frothy and rich. When I was a teenager and worked an espresso stand and had maxed out on coffee, I’d make myself almond steamed milk – warm and frothy whole milk with a shot of almond syrup mixed in. This is what Daisy’s milk tastes like, milked into a mug and enjoyed immediately.

And when I’m done milking, Daisy grooms me. She turns to me, and with a gentle toss of her head, begins covering me in long, deliberate swipes of her tongue. I only let her groom my clothes because cow tongues are rough and will take a layer of skin off with one lick. Sometimes, I misjudge the length of her tongue and she’ll nick my cheek or wrist with her spiny taste buds and I’ll flinch in pain, but it’s worth it, to be so loved by Daisy.

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Peak Hillbilly

Daisy and Mara are living in the front yard. There are a number of reasons for this; primarily, it’s been the safest option for Daisy and the easiest option for me. Poor yard! The yard itself got the short end of the stick, but it was already well on its way to being trashed after being Sid’s playpen and Sunshine’s hospice area and it will come back to life with a little tlc.

When Daisy miscarried, I wanted to keep a very close eye on her to make sure there were no complications. And when Mara arrived, I wanted to keep a very close eye on the two of them to make sure they were bonding properly and that Mara was getting enough milk. And throughout it all, I was milking once or twice a day. And, being that it was the middle of winter, being that February was a frozen hellscape, I didn’t want Daisy traversing the ice if she didn’t have to, and I wanted the shortest commute possible.

The barn was occupied – half by Sir Baby and Jupiter (who must stay separated from the cows this time of year) and half with a haystack. Even if we moved the haystack, that part of the barn doesn’t have an adjoining, fenced-in outside area, and being outside in the sun in winter is actually warmer than being inside the barn during the day. The corrals, which also have shelter, were also occupied, and too far from the house for my liking. The yard was the best option under the stressful surprise circumstances of Daisy’s miscarriage, but if Daisy and Mara were going to winter in the yard, they needed some sort of shelter.

So, we backed the horse trailer to the north edge of the yard, giving the trailer itself full southern exposure, rearranged some fences, filled the trailer with straw, and viola! A portable barn. A portable barn! I now want to learn to weld and retrofit Mike’s older horse trailer (abandoned and unused for a decade) into a deluxe portable barn with a tiny loft for me.

I muck out the portable barn daily and fill it with fresh straw, and Daisy and Mara spend their days in the yard and sleep in the portable barn at night. I’m finding it impossible to describe how cute Daisy and Mara look curled up in there together. (I have tried to take photos of this scene, but it’s too dark for my camera if I sneak out there early, and when Daisy hears the door of the house opening at first light, she stands up, expecting her daily delivery of breakfast in bed.)

I have a feeling Mara will be really easy to load for the rest of her life – if she ever has to ride in the trailer, she’ll be like, “My childhood home!”

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Love Fest In My Front Yard

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When Daisy miscarried, I immediately began milking her twice a day. In the beginning, it wasn’t even about having her milk to drink. I was dumping it, as she’d been given a few shots by the vet and her milk wasn’t fit for man or beast while the medication was in her system. I milked her to keep her body producing milk so that, at some point, she could adopt a calf.

Calving season doesn’t start around here until February, and we don’t begin calving until March. I did not want to wait that long to find a baby, both for Daisy’s benefit and mine – the difference between milking once a day (when there’s a calf to help me out) and milking twice a day (when I’m on my own) is enormous. And I believed the sooner Daisy got a calf to call her own, the easier it would be on her. So I called a guy.

When I’m not milking Daisy, I buy two gallons of fresh, raw milk each week from a man who has a couple dozen dairy cows (who he milks by hand!! a god among men). He lives two hours north of here and delivers his milk to various towns in the area – selling raw milk is now legal in Wyoming, as it should be everywhere. While beef ranchers aim to have all their cows calve (have babies) once a year at the same time, dairy farmers tend to stagger this and have their cows calve at different times throughout the year, so that they have a constant, consistent supply of milk to sell.

So, I called my milkman on the epically remote chance that he might have a young, female calf that I could buy. He said he did have a heifer calf! Who was ten days old! But he didn’t want to sell her as he was planning to keep her for his herd. He offered to milk Daisy for me if I wanted to bring her up to his place, and I thanked him, but told him I wouldn’t be able to stand being that far away from Daisy and that I’d keep looking. He called back an hour later to tell me that he’d be willing to sell me his calf, after all! I think he realized she’d be going to a good home.

About a week after Daisy miscarried, after I was sure the medicine had run through her system, the milkman and I met halfway and transferred the calf from his truck to mine. She’s a Brown Swiss – a dairy breed (Daisy is 3/4 Brown Swiss, 1/4 Jersey) – so she will grow up to be a dairy cow, too! She was so calm and comfortable during the ride home, mellow and incredibly sweet.

I wasn’t sure how Daisy would react to her. Daisy always accepts orphans eventually, but sometimes it can take a week or two for her to really adopt them. In the past, there have been occasional bouts of dancing and kicking, when a calf loves Daisy but Daisy doesn’t yet love it back. When we put this sweet calf in the yard with Daisy, I was prepared for her to try to nurse and for Daisy to walk away. Instead, it was a beautiful union. Daisy saw the calf and dashed over to her with a mama moo that said, “THERE YOU ARE!!!!! I’ve been wondering where you were!!!!!!!!” And Daisy started licking the calf and the calf started nursing and they have been a total love match ever since.

I named the calf Mara, short for Marasmius oreades, the latin name for the Fairy Ring Mushroom. Brown Swiss cows have mushroom-colored coats (Daisy is an anomaly and though Mara has a light body now, her adult coat will likely match her face). And she is so fairy like! She is gentle and perky and sweet and sprightly (though her bones and joints are huge; I bet she’s going to get bigger than Daisy) and the way she came into our lives is truly due to magic.

maratall

Cowpies & Sunrise

cowsandcowpies

Snippets ~ Early Autumn Edition

Daisy is our queen

It’s dark at 9pm and it’s dark at 6am – the light changed while I was gone. It’s not summer anymore, equinox schwequinox.

—–

I’ve been home for a week since my final Star Brand Beef deliveries and, as always, it’s a little weird adjusting from my time as a turtle. My little red reefer truck was my home for three weeks, four delivery routes, 8181 miles – and I loved every second of it, despite the truck having issues every. single. day. (the truck kept me safe and all my beef safe, so, hooray for that). I absolutely love getting to spend time with my customers, long-time readers, email pals, and the opportunity to move beyond the veil of the internet into real life.

—–

I think it might be time to hire seasonal help next year, spring and summer. Maybe even sooner. More details on that as soon as I get logistics worked out in my head. I would love to give someone from “the outside world” a chance to come in and work in agriculture and be part of sustainable, ethical food production…… so much to figure out, though!

—–

Last night’s dinner: organic brown rice cooked in homemade bone broth, served with seared elk tenderloin. Does this sound like a special menu item at an elegant restaurant? Did I mention this was Charlie’s and Chloe’s dinner? Mike had a peanut butter sandwich and I had cereal.

—–

I’ve been home for a matter of days and have already dove head first into a giant new project, which will debut next year and which I know you will LOVE. It is a love project. After 2014 and 2015, when I was barely functioning and just trying to keep myself and my businesses alive, it feels SO GOOD to work hard!

—–

Farmily update: everyone is wonderful and happy and peaceful – Mike held down the fort while I was away, and, thanks to having my own truck, I got to spend time at home with the Farmily between each delivery trip. It made a world of difference for me and them!

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AND, since I’ve been getting emails about this already: the 2017 CHARLIE CALENDAR is coming! I would never break tradition! It will be ready to share mid-October….

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