On this farm, it's a cow's life

I am often in the hayloft as the sun crests the eastern tree line. If the cows have overnighted in the barn, they are shuffling below me, waiting for their feed. If they've bedded in the pasture, they're wending their way up for breakfast by then. I sometimes climb the tiers of hay to the high south-facing window to look for them in the pale early light.

Eye level with the crows while waiting for those first warming rays on the uppermost branches of two great sycamores, I can see a good deal of the farm from up there.

The land undulates down to a creek valley, rises along a north-facing hill – where whatever snow we get always lingers – and levels off across the main summer pasture.

Just beyond my vision, back in the woods, it dips again to a second stream valley.

It is a deeply familiar scene, made more so when the cows begin to troop single file along paths their mothers and grandmothers began to trace 23 years ago.

Jennifer, now 22 and still with us,probably could walk the farm's paths in her sleep. Perhaps she does.

I toss a few cakes of hay into the stall I reserve for her, given her age and status as matriarch of the now eight-member herd of cows.

They're the last of 30 we used to milk commercially and largely relocated when we closed up shop, one of the last of the region's small dairies to go.

We keep this small cadre because it wouldn't feel right without a few cows around here.

They earn their keep by maintaining the pastures. The only two cows still producing milk are those with heifers, so all we need to do is feed them over the winter. We no longer have to do any milking.

Each morning I flip a few bales of hay out the front of the loft, so I can carry them around to the racks.

As the cows stand at the buffet, I consider the other half of the barn where they like to sleep in inclement weather.

The decision is made after their evening feeding: If it is still and calm, they abandon ship as soon as they've eaten to sleep under the stars.

A steady snow or cold drizzle turns their thoughts to bedding inside the barn on layers of manure and freshly spread leaves and straw.

It is not as spacious a bedroom as they'd like, but when the wind howls, they angle themselves down togetherto fill it readily enough – Queen Jennifer circling the jumble to repose in her own roomy stall.

Over the course of the winter, the bed deepens with new layers of straw and nightly compost until it begins to generate its own warmth, steaming when the animals rise and stretch at the day's opening.

It will be a rich mix for fertilizing the hayfields this spring, triggering the growth to yield another winter's feed.

Recycling doesn't get much better or more efficient than this – even if all it sustains is a way of life I cannot wholly put behind me.

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