Monday, January 01, 2007

I would go back to the farm for Christmas break when I was at the University of Michigan. Going to school had been an escape from dreary farm life. My father quit truck driving in 1974 and started a dairy farm. In 1979 we moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a short time before Ronald Reagan’s administration cut the milk subsidies. That was the start of the end for small, family farms. Times were hard, we barely scraped by. The only reason the farm didn’t go under was that my nice grandmother sent my mom money every week.

We had about forty Holstein cows in our drafty barn, along with a small number of Brown Swiss cows my brother was raising. In the summer I would go out twice a day and bring them up to the barn to get milked. Once the ground froze they were locked up inside until spring. It was too cold outside- this was back before global warming, of course.

Dairy cows have the same gestation period as humans- nine months and a week or two. They come into estrous about once a month, you could tell when it was happening because the other cows would mount them and vigorously hump away. Lesbian cow action, no wonder I’m gay. We only had bulls a couple of times- they could be aggressive and dangerous. The second time my father borrowed one from his buddy Chum and that huge bull chased me across the pasture onto a hay wagon, bellowing at me in anger. Luckily I had a pitchfork with me and was able to escape. My father didn’t believe me when I told him what had happened. I think he thought I was a big pussy. The next day he had the same experience, and the bull was sent that afternoon.

Most of the time my father or brother would artificially breed the cows. About three or four months after they had given birth, and when there were signs of estrous, the metallic gray tank was opened up and an ampule of semen selected. We would get these catalogues that you could order cattle semen from, with glossy pictures of the bulls prominently positioned to show off their enormous testicles. Lots of statistics on the milk production of their offspring. The company would deliver the tubes of semen and recharge the liquid nitrogen in the tank. Once they emptied the tank completely out and found a bunch of ampules that had fallen into the bottom- some of which were from long-dead bulls and that had become very, very valuable.

These ampules were unthawed in warm water, the end nipped off, and inserted into a really long syringe. Then my father or brother would put on a long, clear plastic glove and stick their arm down the cows behind. The cows did not enjoy this. I’m pretty sure my father and brother also did not have a good time. The syringe was inserted into the cow’s vagina and the hand-in-the-bum would feel for the syringe going into the fallopian tubes. Once there, a quick push on the plunger and- voila- the cow usually got pregnant. Very romantic.

One aspect of this whole business was that cattle were being bred for size and the resulting calves often had enormous heads. Heads that had a hard time sliding through their mother’s pelves during birth. Sometimes you had to take drastic measures- including using winches to yank the poor calf out. While this was going on the cow would be mooing loudly and sometimes the calves would die. In the winter the calves sometimes tried to stay inside their mother- when their little feet came out they would feel the cold and pull them back in. Add in all the placenta and fluids and cow poop, it was a big mess.

So two years in a row, a cow started giving birth on New Year’s Eve and the calf got stuck and me and my brother were sent out to get the calf out. Both times my brother had to prop the cow up, if she sat down that made everything much harder, while I had to reach in and grab those slippery little legs and pull. No gloves- they made your hands just slip right off their slick legs. I had to pull as hard as I could to get the head to come through and then out, and then really pull hard to get the rest out. Splat, the calf would slide out and fall to the ground- the sudden jolt usually served to make them cry out and start breathing. You’d carry the bloody calf around to the mother’s head and she would energetically start licking it, mooing in the special way new cow moms mooed. The other cows would look on in interest and then go back to chewing their cuds.

Oh, the good old days. So glad I’m not a farm kid anymore.

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