The Best Time to Be Bovine

If I had to trade places with one of our cows for a month, I would certainly make it October. It is hard to do justice to October here in southern Indiana, except by saying it is the one month when a cow is perfectly centered in her zone of comfort. The swarms of flies have faded with the oppressive heat of summer; the blasts and bluster of winter are yet to come. There is no mud, little rain, and a more sustained perfection to the shortening days than ought to be allowed. It only makes the rest of the year seem more obviously flawed by comparison.

For much of the winter there is little to recommend bovinity. There is nothing to do, after all, but stand breathing steam in the chilly barn or padlocked lot in between milkings and feedings. While a January sun can be warming to a thick-coated Holstein standing against a northern wall, winter boils down - or freezes up - to a narrow and closely calculated game of trade-offs. The cows get enough hay to generate their own warmth and to produce a saleable supply of milk, but both supplies are limited. We all just get by.

Spring is welcomed with open mouths. The cows' first return to a pasture newly lush and long is as close to bovine nirvana as things get, but there is a flip side, too. Deep mud and freezing rains precede and follow the occasion. The cows have all they could want to eat, and 80 acres to dine on, but it is never enough. They butt and jostle one another as they tear at the greens in a frenzied knot, each suspecting the others of devouring some special delicacy in secret.

There is nothing relaxed or contented about spring grazing. For cows, it is serious business. Even in summer, when the heat and humidity take the edge off their fervor, they hustle from parlor to pasture: There's still such a lot to eat, so little time. By midday, their udders, drained of milk a few hours earlier, are filling heavily again.

But by October, as the pickings get slim and the persimmons ripen, their attitude changes. Instead of striding straight for the open gate to the fields after morning milking, they stand gazing at the portal, as if contemplating the value of moving at all - the bovine version of "to be or not to be." Our little Guernsey, Red, decides by folding down, her head thrust sunward, eyes closed, mouth rhythmically moving around her cud. The October sun seeps through to her bones, not with a vengeance, but with a nudging kindness it offers just this time of year.

The rest of the herd eventually sallies forth, one by one, at their leisure, and Red rises and follows. On my own walks about the farm to watch the progression of fall colors, I see them browsing and napping here and there, and sometimes I join them for a rest. No one has manufactured a lawn chair to compete for contoured comfort with the sun-warmed side of a fully contented cow. Leaning back against Bonnie on an October afternoon, I all but become a part of her - or she of me.

Eleven months of the year I am happy just to be milking cows, solidly grounded in my humanity. When the summer heat is on, I can duck inside the farmhouse and flip on the ceiling fan. Only a few flies manage to follow. When the snow and freezing rains come, I can sit by the woodstove, feeding it logs as I bask in its warmth with a good book. It's far better than being outside and a cow.

But a southern Indiana October, ah, well, it's a moot point. It's the one month when there is nothing to run inside from: no sweat, no chill, no urgencies. Time unfolds almost unnoticed. The cows wander among the pastures and color-bathed patches of wood, traveling light, without an agenda. Their udders fill, but never to summer weights. It's October, and there is nothing to do but exist in its brief bubble of perfection - nothing at all to complain of, for man or beast.

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