Wading toward the promise of spring

It's that time of year when the cows need a good pep talk, a reminder that longer and warmer days beckon. By now, they are heartily sick of slipping and clumping about on frozen ground, of sleeping in close, irritable clusters for warmth, and of waiting for a groggy human to break the thick glaze on the barnside tank for the day's first icy drink. Even the hay spread in the barnlot racks is only halfway appreciated.

Two of the older cows, now dry, are wintering in a snug stall provided by a family that has been toying with the idea of raising animals themselves. As they are not yet ready to leap into ownership, I saw an opportunity for Charlotte and Red, and suggested to the Shaws that they temporarily adopt a pair of low- maintenance, highly socialized animals - ours, for instance. Keep them for the worst of the winter, I suggested, to get a feel for what's involved. Wait until you see what a couple of warm-blooded bovines do for your empty barn, and for your spirits, I told them. I was wonderfully convincing. But once they'd agreed, Ned admitted to a feeling of having being had. Wasn't this how some kids in Hannibal, Mo., got jollied into painting a fence?

As it turns out, Ned, Amanda, and their two dark-haired daughters have loved having the cows visit. Charlotte and Red will pass this winter in style, growing fat on the generous grain rations Skye and Ariel scoop for them. Their shelter opens on a little fenced yard, almost suburbanlike. When Ned asked wryly about lawn toys, I knew our animals would not be neglected by the Shaws. Just spoiled rotten.

The rest of the cows remain on the farm and in production, however, without the comforts of special winter quarters. So, when they come in for their morning milking, I remind them that it's just a matter of weeks before sure footing will be theirs again. The trickle of creek water under its ice will swell and surface; tender greens will not be far behind the first turbulent thaw. In a few months they can sleep in spacious comfort, to each her own wide space of warm, sweet grass.

They have no choice but to listen, but they don't seem to mind coming inside to do it. Being milked on a wintry morning is akin to a spa experience for our cows. They push and shove for the right to be among the first three in from the chilly barn to the milking parlor where grain and hay-filled stanchions receive them. A warm, tingling spray washes their feet, and a brisk, cleansing sponge soaps and massages their udders. Music plays softly in the background. And on very cold days, a familiar voice tells them that this winter will not last forever, none ever do.

A FEW of the younger cows relax so fulsomely to the medium and the message that milk squirts from their quarters before I can get the machines attached. Others, more experienced and skeptical, know that this is all so much airy chatter. They stand unimpressed, letting down their milk with polite indifference to my verbal visions of spring. And once I'm done with them, they exit into the wintry weather without a hint of having profited from a word I've said.

But I am right: All that I tell my cows will come to pass. The snow will diminish and disappear, the waters will run again, and the pasture will flower. And truth be told, the ritual promise on cold, dark mornings isn't entirely for their benefit. The iced-over windows admit only a gloaming, and the concrete floor drains the warmth from my feet as I admit the first three animals. So, as I talk to them, I am half-trying to convince myself that this harsher-than-usual winter will, by gosh, come to an end.

For all of my efforts, it is the cows who do the convincing. They troop in with their heat, gradually thawing the small parlor as they offer steady jets of buttery milk. Their thick coats receive my hands like fur gloves. It is even someway warming just to watch their muzzles rustle through the hay for the last dustings of grain. When they finish eating, they look around at me with dark eyes that could melt glaciers. In such company, who could fail to believe in spring - or to make peace, for now, with the dark heart of winter?

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