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Cows Out!
When those barn doors open and the cows notice that the barn yard gate, shut to them all winter long, is swung wide open, It doesn’t take long; they’re off like yearlings sprung for the first time.
Cows Out!
When those barn doors open and the cows notice that the barn yard gate, shut to them all winter long, is swung wide open, It doesn’t take long; they’re off like yearlings sprung for the first time.

Since moving back to the family farm to work a decade ago, I can honestly say there are few things I look toward with more anticipation each year that these four little words: “Cows are going out.”

Ahhh!

Going out for good this time,only to return to the confines of the barn for their morning and evening milkings. Months of counting down the days through the cold hard winter like a child waiting for Christmas, then that coveted day finally arrives. And when it comes, it’s difficult to tell who is more excited--me or the cows.

When those barn doors open and the cows notice for the first time that the barn yard gate, shut to them all winter long, is swung wide open, It doesn’t take long;they’re off like yearlings sprung for the first time. It’s a hysterical sight to behold, but most beautiful at the same time. With tails crimped, they run, jump, buck, kick their hind legs up and head toward the pastures lush with the rich grasses of spring, standing tall for the taking.

Why do we anticipate this particular event in the farm calendar? Quite simply,because it’s a statement that we’ve survived. Survived another winter and the sometimes monotonous routine of winter barn chores.And just as we have survived, so, too, have the cows.

Unlike many larger farms that operate milking parlors where cows are housed in a free stall-style barn and don’t stay in one place, our barn is a tie-stall. A dying breed of dairy farm anymore, but it is exactly what it says. Each cow has her own individual stall equipped with pads, a water bucket and a place to plug in a milking machine. They come in to stay as late fall turns to winter, and go out to brave the elements only once a day for about 30 minutes. During that time we clean the barn, fluff their stalls with fresh straw, feed them their hay and give the cows a chance to stretch their legs. Also during that time we can observe the cows as they mingle outside, watching for signs that they may be in heat. But that’s a topic for another column!

Believe me, the cows don’t seem to mind heading back in when that time is up, to spend their winter days and nights cozied in, as the legendary upstate New York winds whistle outside. But being cooped up for the winter can have some side effects. Their feet can become sore or infected. They sometimes get skin and udder (we call them bags) irritations from laying one way for a prolonged period of time or from rubbing the sides of their stalls. They can become stiff, lame and downright cranky toward March and April, when winter’s grip refuses to let go.

But when that barnyard gate opens to the promised land for the first time on a warm, brilliant spring morning, all those ailments are quickly forgotten. Even those cows that are a bit older and slower greet the day with such excitement that they set a pace even the youngest heifers must push to meet.

Watching the herd bound toward the pasture with sheer joy and amusement, I wait to hear my father say what he always says to describe the phenomenon: “Dr. Grass.”

It’s a term he’s used for half a century. I believe he may be right. The sweet grass is a nectar of sorts for the ladies, and a welcome change, I’m sure, from the grain, corn silage and hay (darned good hay if I do say so myself) that’s been their sustenance for the past six months. While they’ll still depend on a diet of corn and grain, it is the grass that will be their mainstay throughout the lazy summer days and nights, eating as much as the meadows can produce.

As the late spring heads to summer, other work now takes center stage: baling and putting away hay, sprucing up and preparing for the fall harvest.

Like clockwork, the cows will be at the gates at 4:30 each morning and 4:30 each afternoon for their milkings, but have little patience for staying in the barn for long after that. And as slow and lazy as summer can sometimes be, before we know it, fall will hint to the chill of winter and the cows come will come in out of the cold once again to the warmth and comfort of the barn.

As funny as it seems to me now, I know that somehow, I will look forward to that, too. I’m not really sure why; maybe it’s just because I can always find some reason to love this thing that I do.

Christine Barnes-Haviland has excelled as a journalist and a teacher. She is currently a devoted dairy farmer and freelance writer in Madison, New York.

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