The other day at Polyface I spent the majority of the day working with the cows. In the morning I took part in the sorting. We were sorting out eight steers to be processed next week and 16 cow/calf pairs to move to a rental farm.
The sorting corral is made up of three different areas with gates in between and a holding pen. The idea is to separate the easy from the hard. What that means is that instead of trying to get eight steers separated from the herd, we separated the herd from them. I worked the gate and had to let the right cows through but not any of the wrong ones. It sounds simple but when there are 70 cows moving around and multiple ones coming toward you at the same time, it’s a little overwhelming to not know what you’re doing.
In the beginning I was nervous to make mistakes, hesitating, but as we went I had a few moments of getting it right. Moving to face the cow at the exact right moment and getting that reaction I was looking for. Communicating with the animal in that delicate dance is pure magic to me. The only thing I can compare it to is riding a well-trained horse. You’re sending subtle messages from every point of contact with the horse at the same time, and they are responding to all of them. The world around you blurs and all you can feel in that moment is you and the horse and the perfect connection. Those moments are rare and magical and the few I felt with the cows were incredible.
After the cows were sorted, we sent some back to pasture, the eight steers to a second paddock, and then loaded the calves and moms into two trailers. Calves in one, cows in another, so the calves wouldn’t get crushed in transport. Daniel asked me if I had driven a trailer before. I said yes. I didn’t say that I had only done it in a hayfield because I didn’t want someone else to be picked and I knew I could do it. Daniel went ahead of me in the bigger trailer with the cows, and I followed along behind with the calves. I felt the weight of the trailer and the calves and the fact that I was hauling cattle down the road by myself and I was so blissfully happy to be in that moment.
We got to Briarmoor, the rental farm, backed the two trailers into the field and released the moms and babies into the larger herd. They scrambled off the trailer and happily reunited with each other. This moment of joy and adorableness was interrupted when Daniel saw a calf looking decidedly dead a bit up the field. This calf had been having problems for days and it looked like the end had come. When we got to it to drag it onto the trailer, we realized it was still just barely alive. “We’re going to have to shoot it.” This I knew, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the Mom’s angst as we brought the calf to the trailer. She followed us closely, groaning and breathing deeply. After the calf was in the trailer, she bawled and sniffed the line under the fence where the calf had gone. We brought the calf to Gabe’s where it was quickly put out of misery with one quick shot. This brought me relief but I couldn’t shake the inextricable sadness of watching the mom lose her baby.
When we got back to Polyface I went with Jessica, apprentice, to another rental farm to move another herd of cows. I reflected on the immense joy I had experienced sorting and hauling cows, and then the stark difference in the loss of a young life and seeing and feeling the cow’s distress. It’s sad to see death happen in the wrong order but Mother Nature doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. Being a part of those moments gives us a greater appreciation for our life and the lives around us. Back at the farm I thought about that conversation as I observed the chickens clucking around, the baby pigs in a literal pig cuddle pile, the cows grazing contentedly, and the chorus of birds singing from their perches in trees. The sadness I had felt about the calf’s death turned into an immense gratitude at being there for that moment. Where there is life, there must be death, and a chance to be a part of the death can only make me appreciate the life so much more.