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In my estimation, dairy cows are, far and away, the most demanding of all animals on the farm. Not demanding in the sense of always needing things on a daily basis, but it’s been a very long and windy road to get to where we are with our pocketful of dairy cows. Things look different on a small farm/homestead than they do on a bigger, commercial farm. What works and makes sense to do on a bigger farm often doesn’t fit on a small farm. And, unfortunately, that includes the breeds of animals and the farming practices that often come along with them.
The great bulk of questions that come my way from burgeoning homesteaders is about a family milk cow. People often ask if they could get by with a couple acres of land for ole Buttercup, how much the cow needs to be fed, what breed they should start with, and those types of questions. All of them are impossible to answer in isolation. So much is dependant on where you live, what that land is comprised of, fencing possibilities, etc.. But, that’s not much of a satisfactory answer so I will touch on a few things we consider before taking on any new venture on our farm. It’s been an evolution over many years, trial by fire, and I think it’s applicable in all situations in life, not just ones relating to a farm.
Before we decide on any new direction, we have to know why we’re doing it. “I want a cow for milk” is a pretty ubiquitous approach. Ok, makes sense. If you’re in a place where “I want peacocks because they’re beautiful”, I still wouldn’t try and dissuade you. Beauty is important and it’s a valid reason in my books. You just have to know why in order to start chewing around the gristle of “how” and “should”.
For us, it’s the “should we” that comes next. The “should” helps us figure out the “how”. I think our culture has pulled away from “should we” a little too much. It’s almost a dirty word. If we want it, we should get it. We should make it happen. We should do whatever it takes. We are so caught up in how we should have it/do it that we never tuck our egos away long enough to consider if what we want might not be what someone or something else wants. A big part of our farming approach revolves around “should we” instead of what I see a lot, the “could we” approach. Am I speaking in riddles? Let me explain with a scenario I see commonly enough:
“We bought some land and are bringing animals onto it. We want a dairy cow for milk. There are three acres, but one acre is fenced completely so the cow could stay there. I’m pretty sure we could keep a cow there okay. Our cousin’s friend has a cow and she said it’s doable.”
That’s not the approach we take and I’m not likely to reinforce anyone’s ideas on how to keep animals when their desire for the products those animals provide trumps the quality of the lives of those animals. That doesn’t mean that an animal cannot live to its full animal self, vibrantly healthy and content, with compromises. Of course they can. Working with living things always involves compromise. And where people start out on a small farm will look wildly different than where they end up. Chicken houses will evolve. Wind shelters or barns will be built. Fencing will improve. The water that had to be hauled or fed with pipes criss-crossing the fields will be replaced by wells. Who knows, it’s not my farm, but I do know that we all have to start somewhere and my words should, by no means, dissuade you from beginning.
The “should” questions come, and should go, to a place of deep enquiry and introspection. I use them to envision whatever venture I’m thinking of in all of its robust glory. In this case, the cow. What does she want? What makes her content and healthy? Well, she is a herd animal so let’s start there. Will she have a herd? From that very start, we can hear, if we’re willing to listen, some circumstantial excuses start coming up. Maybe a herd isn’t so important to us, but we’re not talking about us right now. To me, one of the great sadnesses of an agricultural landscape is a lone cow in a field. If I cannot have a herd to satisfy that basic need of a cow, I stop there.
From there, a handful of other things to consider come up under the “should we” category. To know what to ask, admittedly, you have to have some knowledge of the creature itself. My recommendation would be to use instinct and conversations with farmers that you respect and who have farms you would like to emulate. Find the happy looking cows and ask questions of their farmers. Find the farmers willing to share their successes and failures. Take bits and bobs from a whole slew of sources, run them through your gut filter, and decide what resonates and what doesn’t.
Common other “shoulds” we look at when considering keeping an animal on our farm run parallel to the nature of said animal. We can keep ducks, but they are waterfowl and we don’t have a pond, could we still do it? Should we still do it? So much of how people are taught to approach things as they start a new homesteading venture is runoff from a monetised culture that has drilled into our brains the idea that when we want something, we should have it. You can still go with that approach. By all means, it’s your prerogative. But if there’s something you will learn when you take up the load of producing your own food and being a steward of the land, it’s that if you don’t have humility, you will be served a heaping dose. And another. And another. You will, as it is in all of life, be given your lessons on the great poo-poo platter of life until you no longer need to be.
I, as taught in the principles of Biodynamic farming, see our farm as a whole organism. The water and the trees and the soil, the cows and the ducks and the rabbits, all of it inhaling and exhaling with mighty lungs and purifying with its wetland liver and kidneys. It is a whole and we are a part, just as every living thing here is. One thumping, beating, pulsing organism, each playing a role. The wholeness and vibrancy of all the parts affects each and everything else. There are things that can’t be quantified, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be measured by the most sophisticated tool there is - us. All of us have built in guidance systems calibrated by place. Ego can mess with our magnetic north, best to keep that tucked away as best you can.
So, that cow is there looking at you, mooing for you to bring her home. Back to the business of asking those questions. Should you have a cow on the land you have? Would you be able to satisfy her need for a herd, even a small one? Would you be able to feed her? What would you feed her? The cost of that? Does it make sense? Do you have a house for her? Bedding for her? What kind? How much? Will you be able to milk her? Will you leave her calf with her? Will you take the calf off? You could satisfy her basic needs, but what are the compromises? Are they too great? Should you bring on a new cow at all? Maybe a goat makes more sense. Maybe some sheep? What could you offer them?
We apply these questions as an overlay over every new idea we have. Whether it’s rabbits - we can keep them in a cage. Should we? Is that really how a rabbit would chose to spend its days. To a pig - we can keep them in a stall and fatten them up quickly. Should a pig with a powerful snout maybe have a function for that snout? These are not easy questions and to be frank, they piss a lot of people off. A lot of people would rather get on with the business of animal keeping than to stop and consider what they have to offer to said animal.
We have some dairy cows and heifers because our “should we” questions were satisfied when we were thinking of bringing them onto our farm. That doesn’t mean that we stopped asking the questions. On almost a daily basis, I am asked to keep questioning. I keep a close eye on the ideas that come rolling in with all of the possibilities of things we could do. This decision making must be honed by the realities of each farm, of each life. We are working with the land, right? We are humbling ourselves to be in union, not to stand as overlord. We can see where that has gotten us.
With humility we can immerse ourselves into place, take a breath, and start observing, asking the question “what do you want”. And I don’t mean the you that is reading this. I like that “you” well enough, but there’s bigger things to consider here. Does your land want a cow? Maybe goats fit your scrubby brush better. How best can your land and the plants and creatures on it live in reciprocity? And not just tit for tat, but in a whole, vital web of synchronicity? There is no deep nourishment for the humans if the animals and the earth organism upon which they depend are being mined and squeezed to oblivion because the human wants it to be so.
Careful attention must be paid to frictions that develop within the organism. Just like with our bodies that send little signals, symptoms of unease turn into roars of disease if we ignore them. The farm organism, too, starts sending messages with a whisper. Maybe your chickens get sick. Maybe your cow’s hooves start needing tending a little too much. Maybe your rabbits develop ear mites or your goats are showing temperament issues. Or your vegetables and fruit trees succumb to waves of marauding insects or funguses. It is the same as our bodies. The only distinction lies in our ignorance. We eat from vibrant life to create vibrant life. Or, we don’t.
If I ask my beef farmer friend about why a couple of my young steers got some cow warts on their face, he tells me it’s ubiquitous, no worries. If I consult with mainstream cattle books or websites, they say some version of the same or, depending on the malady, recommend a vaccine or medication to fix it. If I turn to the town village, now known as YouTube, there will be a bunch of suggestions ranging from pharmaceutical approaches to the suggestion I started out with - leave it alone, no big deal.
But that’s not true either. While it may be no big deal, it’s something. There’s a message there. Just as sure if I woke up with a wart on the tip of my nose, there is something to pay attention to and figure out. What is happening in the body that has created an environment for dysregulation? Where is it? What is it? What is missing? What is in excess? If I consider only the topical approach, I miss the whole signal altogether. And if I miss the whole signal altogether, more are in cue waiting to make their appearance, ever louder and more pronounced. And so it goes. Man and beast. Earth and water, Air and plants. Spirit and matter. All of us intricately tied into and around one another.
And that’s the whole point of the ‘should’ questions. If I cannot satisfy the yearnings of a creature or a plant, I would rather find the people that can and support them in their endeavours. If I cannot raise a dairy cow in a way that allows her to keep her calf so that it too may be nourished in a way that will in return nourish us and the land one day, I will find someone that can. If I cannot afford to keep her during our long, frigid winters, without making the ‘economics work’ by milking her all throughout which then necessitates feeding grain which we do not want to do, is it even a reasonable proposition for our farm? Maybe, but for the farm in its totality? No, it’s not.
And so it goes with every new adventure here, farm or otherwise. A constant weighing of what we have to offer against the needs of any living thing. And then, our eyes remain fixed, observing continuously, watching for where we must pivot and being humble enough to listen to what the land wants over all the things we think we can do with it. It’s a dance, to be sure. It’s not how we’re told to approach things. We’re supposed to get out there and grab it! Make it happen! There’s plenty of that in farming, there has to be if anything is going to happen at all. That comes naturally for us. Our efforts have to be in attuning our desires with the desires of our farm and the natural places surrounding us. There is more life than ours to consider, but in that considering is the cosmic truth of the enmeshment of us with the wonder and beauty of all of God’s creation, all about us. And that is the deep nourishment that satisfies the cravings of life.