We don't know our cows the way we used to. There is no surer way to get close to a bovine than to raise her from birth, clean her up and milk her twice a day, be there when she's bred and calves, and endlessly adjust to the rich store of idiosyncrasies every cow has.
With the daily rhythm of dairy farming a fast-receding memory, we still keep and enjoy several animals on less intimate terms – herd descendants we have never milked; animals unused to being handled, touched, or leaned into. If I tried pressing myself against one of these semiwild things for warmth on a winter's morning – a habit I developed over many Januaries in the milking parlor – I'd be flat on the ground, my erstwhile prop aloof on the hoof.
Even though we no longer have a dairy farm, the cows and heifers serve a purpose – keeping the pastures grazed and the scene bucolic – and they still have names: Lisa, Alicia, Jocelyn, Nellie, Iris, and Siri.
And then there's Indy, the big Holstein bullock. Oddly, he is the only one who tolerates contact, no doubt because he emerged from the womb with weak rear legs. I spent the first several days of the little bull's life helping him wobble about behind his mother until he could walk and nurse steadily on his own. Sixteen-hundred pounds later, he doesn't seem to have forgotten. His benign eyes lock calmly on mine as I scratch his ears and the woolly expanse between his horns. I know he'd fetch a pretty price at market, but then who would I turn to for such moments? Certainly not the cows, who watch the scene with deep suspicion.
For all their coolness, I enjoy them, too. I look for and walk among them on my rounds, scout out where they've slept, and make my presence regularly known. If they won't let me stroke them, at least they'll know who's spreading their hay come winter. I see traces of their mothers and grandmothers in them, animals I spent hours with in the small milk parlor, companionable creatures I might have held in my lap were it big enough.
The last of our old milk cows, Jennifer, died last spring, well into in her 23rd year. She put even Indy to shame with her complete trust of what we're all about. She'd approach us on our walks – and might have followed us right back into the house and onto the love seat if we'd invited her. But I cede her wary descendants their space.
When Charlie and I opened up the east pasture recently, Jennifer's offspring and those of her pettable ilk lost no time spilling in for the fresh late-season grazing it offered. They glanced at us mistrustfully as they sidled though the gate, then fanned out, putting us out of mind in their gluttony. All but Indy, who quietly raised his head at my approach, stood his considerable ground, and opened himself up to a human moment.
After a few seconds, he, too, backed away and began to tear rhythmically at the new expanse of grass, a deeply familiar and grounding sound. For all the new realities impinging upon our relationship to the herd, the animals still define the place. Without them, our 80 acres would still be a farm – just not the one we call home.