Then Sophy kicked Mona Lisa

It is a little-known fact that cows are crabby in the morning. So am I, of course, but I don't weigh a thousand pounds. City people also think that cows are milked in the wee hours of the morning because they have to be. Actually, cows can be milked on any 12-hour schedule as long as it's consistent. The hours are early to coincide with the farmer's work schedule, not the cows'. As likely as not our Guernseys are still asleep when I barge in in the morning. And there's the rub all right. Moving a sleepy cow in a direction she doesn't want to go can cause logistical hassles an urban traffic controller never dreamed of.

They lined up all right this morning, though. It was when I changed their positions in the milk line that the trouble began. A milk line is not a casual matter of who gets there first like the line at the grocery checkout. The milk line is carefully arrived at through power plays, supportive cliques, or brute force. A position in the milk line seems to represent to the cow her position in society, and woe to him who changes the status quo.

Which is what I had to do. Sophia was being moved to a low-feed group as she entered a new phase of her milk cycle. In laymen's terms I sent her to the back of the line. Not only was this demotion humiliating to Sophy but it caused problems with Inez. Cows are sociable creatures and like to stand with their girlfriends while being milked. Sophy and Inez were indulging in their equivalent of gossip when I split them up. The result was that Sophy expressed her displeasure by kicking Mona Lisa, and Inez mooed mournfully. Revlon joined in the chorus just for the heck of it. Then Sophy tried to butt in line ahead of Big Betty. Big Betty protested. Bedlam broke out. Another peaceful day in the country had begun.

In the end I compromised and let Sophy stand in front of Mona Lisa but not in front of Big Betty. You can't give in completely on these things. It doesn't look good. Inez was quieted by tickling her chin, Big Betty was only half awake and easily distracted, but Revlon required a few whacks on the nose. I am not a practicing pacifist before breakfast.

I turned the milk machine on, chased the cats out, and hoped that it would be an easy session. It wasn't. The all-important lineup had been changed still further by the addition of Drooler and Cleopatra. They had both dropped calves the week before and were coming off maternity leave. I had stuck them in the line at two low-priority spots with what I considered great diplomacy. There had been no trouble.

What I didn't realize was that the new lineup meant that Carmen, a low feeder , was milked in a stall next to Kickapoo, a high feeder. Kickapoo does not walk softly like the Indian. She earned her name. In bovine body language she managed to convey to Carmen that her food was better. Carmen sent up an immediate wail of unfair. Artful Dodger, a liberal who will always take the side of labor vs. management, began a noisy campaign in support. This got the other cows upset, which means less milk, so I had to tickle a lot of chins to calm them down again. Pure economics.

In the meantime, Wallflower got sent to the right-hand milking aisle instead of to the left as usual. She hesitated (for she is well named) but might have taken the change in stride if she hadn't been mad at Joe, who was milking the right. Her pique with Joe is a week old, but Wallflower tends to be sulky. Seeing Joe she darted back to the left into a stall that Boo Boo was just about to enter, making Boo Boo cry.

To avoid chaos I moved Boo to the right and left Flower where she was. Boo is a lady, and I thought she would give up her stall politely. Breakfast is served on both aisles, after all. I forgot about Big Mac. At present we have two bulls - Sullivan, who is a gentleman, and McDonald, who is not. Boo Boo will tolerate Sully, but she considers Big Mac a real brute and protests his presence on the farm. Mac is kept in a bullpen on the right.

If she were human, Boo Boo would have been an opera star. Today she was outstandingly vocal as she bellowed forth about the tragedy of placing a well-bred cow like her anywhere near the likes of a seedy character like Mac. Joining Joe on the right to quiet her down (she had warmed to her theme), I neglected to secure Agatha.

I named Aggie after Agatha Christie, because her behavior is a constant mystery to us all. Today she ate only half her grain, then wandered off without being milked. Eventually I found her at the calf barn inspecting the new arrivals. To get to the calf barn she had had to invade turf belonging to the Disciplettes.

Last spring 12 heifers were born in one month and I named them after the 12 disciples. Since then I have lived in fear that the minister would find out, especially since the Disciplettes have reached a difficult age and become a roving youth gang. Perhaps they're just going through a phase. Matilda (for Matthew) and Beth-Emmy-Lou (for Bartholomew) were approaching in a menacing manner, and the others were ganging up behind Agatha. Agatha is spacey. She stood her ground, ignored the feisty heifers, stared at the sky, eyed the newborns, and then allowed me to lead her quietly away.

The rest of the milking passed without incident, except that Peppernose, who is usually docile, kicked me. I was in a bad mood by the time I milked her, and I think she knew it.

My friend Jennifer is an advertising executive in Madison, Wis. She speaks of management problems, office politics, and the daily grind. The last time I saw her she told me how lucky I was to live in the country and to be home all day.

It's 8:30 a.m. I've been awake for four hours. The milking is done, but my chores are just beginning. I think of Jennifer who is just now heading for her clean, air-conditioned office. Today I'll work in the heat and be ankle deep in manure. As I pull on my rubber boots I look out at the barnyard; the cows tiptoeing through the muck, three clouds playing peek-a-book with the silo, the sun burning a red hole between the leaves. And Jennifer thinks I'm lucky.

She's absolutely right.

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