When a cow leaves our farm, it is rarely to go to auction. You never know where a mature cow sold at auction will end up, but chances are it's not where she'd like to be.
As we pared down our dairy herd in the late 1990s, in preparation for our own retirement from commercial milking, we kept in mind what the animals had given us over the years literally tons of milk, dozens of calves, plus companionship and body warmth willingly shared on cold winter mornings in the barn. We couldn't keep them all for life, but we could try to give them a chance to make good somewhere else rather than send them to unknown fates.
We advertised for families with a bit of pasture and a barn who might consider adopting a personable cow or two for home production of butter and cheese, not to mention that ready supply of fresh, frothy milk. To our mild surprise there were takers. It's no small commitment having a dairy cow, especially one that has recently calved and has to be relieved twice a day.
We said goodbye to Molly, then Red, followed by Hannah, Rosie, Juniper, and Richie, all to small hobby farms. Bernadette, Stream, and Vera entered production at a nearby commercial diary, where they encountered a larger and more modern parlor than they were accustomed to. Elsie and Hillary repaired to a cooperative family farm on the Ohio River. Scout and Brooke joined a young couple setting up a little homestead in a neighboring county.
And so they went, until we were down to a manageable retirement community of 10 keepers.
Occasionally we hear back from the cows' new owners. Red, adopted by a local family who sold homegrown vegetables at a weekly farmers' market (and correctly considered a cow a fine commitment), had just borne a heifer and was providing plenty of milk for everyone.
At the commercial dairy, Bernadette had walked into the unfamiliar herringbone parlor without a backward glance, as if she'd been milked there all her life. (Stream and Vera, homesick for their free-standing stanchions, had to be encouraged to modernize). Meanwhile, Hannah, Rosie, Juniper, and Richie resolved one day to explore the countryside beyond their lush new bottomland pasture. Charlie and I couldn't help grinning at the image of someone else rounding them up and repairing the weak spot in the fence.
Earlier this year, a telephone call came from the young couple hard at work establishing their self-sufficient homestead. Brooke had had a beautiful brown heifer, and they thought that Scout was due to calve soon. Katie had just delivered their second child milk production at this place was clearly close to peak.
Charlie and I decided it was time to accept their invitation to come out for a visit. As a carpenter, Charlie was curious to see how their timber-frame home was progressing. I made no bones whatsoever about my own motives. Having long ago stopped feeling foolish about my attachment to the cows, I was wild to throw my arms around Brooke and Scout again and see how they were doing.
We found the cows in clean, dry stalls, chowing down premium hay. Scout was enormous with calf, while Brooke nursed a gorgeous little brown replica of herself. The cows looked so completely at home and gazed at us with such calm detachment, I wondered if they even recognized us until Charlie bent down to take a bit of milk from Brooke's bulging udder. The cow's head twisted around with a kind of dawning awareness, as if to say, "Why it's you ... where have you been?
Weeks later, Katie called to tell us that Scout had just had a fine, healthy calf and yes, it, too, was a heifer. Red, Brooke, and now Scout, all presenting their new owners with heifers. We wondered why the cows, who'd been prone to bless us with bull calves, had been holding out on us. It didn't seem fair, but it was good to know that our relocated bovines were prospering.
The other day we learned about Molly. I'd all but forgotten about Molly, one of the first cows to leave us for another home. Her name came up by chance in a conversation with the daughter of the fellow who'd purchased her back in 1996 or 1997.
"They just adore her and she's made a lot of money," Candy said, bringing us to attention. She explained that her nephew had become smitten with his grandfather's cow and had taken to dressing her up on holidays occasions that Molly not only tolerated but clearly relished. Pictures had been taken. Before long she'd won a following on the Internet. Molly T-shirts and other saleables blossomed into a brisk business.
A run of heifers was one thing. This kind of cash-cow success was something else.
"She might at least have remembered us," I sniffed, tongue in cheek. Believe me, I knew just how ridiculous that sounded: Anyone who knows them, knows cows never look back not once they've got it made.