In Praise of Plain Brown Cows

JERSEY cows are brown, not black and white. They're fairly small. They're beautiful. People can mistake them in the field for deer. When I was five, my father invested in an aging Jersey named Queenie. She lumbered night and morning between the barn and field, contributing the rich milk necessary to raise a hungry family. Despite her sagging udder and slow gait, I thought she was wonderful. I learned to churn and work her cream into golden butter. My brothers and I were never afraid to bring her in from the pasture.

Life carried me from Jersey cows to the city, to teaching school, to singing, and to raising six children. The move back to the country encouraged my husband to hunt for a farm. We ended up on a Maine farm and, within a month, we had a Jersey cow, Legend, dark-faced with a buckskin hide and a steady demeanor. Dick hand-milked her for two years before we began to dairy in earnest.

Holsteins get all the press. Ben and Jerry's features black and white cows on the ice cream carton. Every cow knickknack is black and white. We've had visitors who claim they thought all cows were black and white. True, Holsteins do give vast quantities of milk, perhaps twice the amount, on average, that Jerseys give.

It wasn't at all surprising then, when five years into our dairy operation Dick began to favor an all-Holstein herd. We had several black-and-white calves we'd raised and knew that a barn full of Holsteins would make enough milk to fill the bulk tank. Even though we had accumulated a preponderance of Jerseys and seen them through their first calving to maturity, we weren't making enough money to endure in dairying.

Winter was coming and, hoping to devote the crowded barn to the more cost-effective Holsteins, we decided to shelve our sentiments and to put 20 Jerseys, all second-calvers or mature cows, on the market. We advertised in Uncle Henry's market bulletin and a couple of weeks later we received a phone call from a young entrepreneur from across the state. He wanted to see the cows. When he came he admired them and told us of his dream to sell milk door to door. Our Jerseys would be making milk for a local dai ry and their rich cream would be appreciated. As he agreed to take the lot, the financial picture seemed brighter.

In the meantime, Dick and I both took jobs at a private school nearby. Again teaching school, we could envision continuing in the dairy industry, on a much smaller scale, however, with nine or 10 Holsteins with a token Jersey among them.

The hauler came in late November. All 20 Jersey cows trotted agreeably onto the monstrous cattle truck. No arguments. No protests. I said my goodbyes. Tessie. Cozysweet. Ella. Celeste. Rebecca. All healthy and full of promise, most of them were due to freshen in January. Suzy. Caroline. Serena. Wendy. Rapunzel. All shades of tan and brown and black, their brown eyes skirted with long lashes, tails swinging. Bundlejoy. Tracy. Alison. Off went Tinkerbell, our least favorite because she tends to kick. It al l made sense. They were going to a spanking new barn. Our operation was scaling down in a feasible way. Besides, teachers don't have time for full-time farming these days.

Milking was a cinch without all those cows. We were out of the barn in 20 minutes, or so it seemed. Dick accepted a position as administrator at the school. We separated the cows we had left, putting an empty stall between each pair. The barn didn't seem as empty then or cold. A neighbor asked if we'd board a few of his Holstein heifers.

Having made the down payment on the Jerseys, their new owner called to say they were doing fine. The holidays were approaching. We faced the fact that we'd have to tell our older children coming home from school about the decision to let the Jersey ladies go. The children, too, acknowledged the good sense of planning to go all-Holstein. Besides, my mother was ill, and we now could easily leave for visits, with friends and the kids taking over the chores and milking.

Dick and I went to visit Mother for a couple of days and returned Christmas Eve. In the midst of the hustle to get chores done before we all went to the church pageant, the phone rang. The man with the Jerseys said he couldn't keep them any longer. He'd like to sell them off in groups of two or three.

Celeste. Tinkerbell. Tessie. Caroline. Dick hung up the phone. Serena. Suzy. Rebecca. Cozysweet. Ella. No, we both chimed at once, no.

Dick was on the phone again. "Bring them back. ... Yes, I said, bring them all back."

Rapunzel. Bundlejoy, Antonia. Alison. It rang true. They were coming home the day after Christmas. I cried. How I had missed them.

We work harder now with a barnful of Jerseys and a few token Holsteins. A man helps out. We hire another helper on weekends. The bulk tank is nearly full. Calves have come. The girls are producing beyond what we'd expected. Their tawny shapes again fill the stalls. We are very grateful for them, and for having the unequivocal sense to welcome them back. Life includes more with school and farm joined, but the complexity is richness and one benefits the other. Most important, the Jerseys are home where the y belong.

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