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Farm To Farm 11/11/2009

Last Tuesday afternoon was maybe the final balmy weather until March. I was a little disoriented after spending the whole morning riding up to the Willits area to pick up a shorthorn cow and her half Jersey bull calf from one of those back-to-the-lander homesteads. The people had called me several days before with an urgent situation. The cow had calved one month earlier and developed mastitis in her left rear quarter. She had become a vicious kicker. They had no milking stall and had to tie the cow every which way. That was not the only reason they were calling me.

“She keeps getting out and walking up the road. The CHP has gotten on our case.”

Because the cow was originally a show animal from the Rowe-Innisfail heard and I was the one who'd recommended these people to purchase her from them, I felt obliged to drop everything and pester my neighbor to drive up to Willits. Lives were being threatened out there on the highway.

The cow — “Lily” — was stunningly gorgeous even with her grotesquely swollen left rear quarter. Most likely she would thereafter be referred to as a “three titter,” worth only the price of beef and bidding at the Petaluma livestock auction. But I figured to keep her around to nurse calves. Anyway, her heifers would be of the prize-winning bloodline, as her three-titter condition was not due to a defect in the cow. It was due to the logistical nightmare faced by most people who buy a single cow with the plan to have milk for themselves and their neighbors.

“If you're going to get one cow you might as well get ten,” Mike Biaggi told me about five years ago when he sold us the old three-titter jersey that he'd been keeping on some headlands pasture with half a dozen “junk” bulls to keep them out of trouble.

We were buying the three-titter to be company for another three-titter that had migrated from one homestead in Anderson Valley to another for a dozen years or so before being passed down to us. Her name was “Emily” according to some people. She was “Veronica” to others. Someone else called her “Buttercup.” Some Mexican guys had her. I don't know what name they called her.

That was our first cow. She was living evidence that I didn't listen very well to the woman who is now my second ex. “I told so and so they could drop the cow off at the farm,” she told me, and it barely registered until Emily-Veronica-Buttercup was tromping free range through our fields. She busted down every rudimentary fence I tried to string up overnight. She ate our peas, our lettuce, our sweet corn. She ate somebody's medical plants and they weren't even our neighbors! They were miles away. She kept going into heat and needing a bull. Nothing would stop her.

“That cow is running your farm,” my mother-in-law sort of screamed at me. She either said “running,” or “ruining.” (In southern Indiana they say “ri-unnin” for either of those words.)

As if to emphasize the point, Emily-Veronica-Buttercup squashed and splintered the impromptu pallet I'd hastily wired to two T-posts as a corner next to a pallet-gate, and entered the little half acre along the road which is our main garden. It was the most heavily fortified, the last to fall.

So I could have traded stories with the folks in Willits on Tuesday, but my neighbor was in a hurry to get back to Boonville to pick up his kids at the bus stop. As we loaded Lilly, the childhood actress, the show heifer turned three-titter cow into my neighbor's trailer, the Willits woman who had been milking her almost wanted to cry. “She was a member of our family. I'm going to miss her.”

I knew how she felt. She was going to miss her but was glad to see her go. “Hell, I know how you feel,” I said. “I mean, I'm going to be married to her.”

The lady laughed.

That last warm afternoon on Tuesday I was not looking forward to milking Lilly, the vicious kicker. Who knew what would come out of that left rear quarter? I had to at least investigate, maybe consult vet Larry Chaulk in the morning for a diagnosis. So I walked through the fall plantings of beets and carrots, pulling out lambs quarters that had grown amply in the warmth of late October, tossing them over the top strand of electric wire separating our beef herd from the vegetables. The cows are bored of their summer quarters and itching to get out on the lush pasture in the hills, and they fought over the weeds I tossed them.

As I turned, contemplating beets, carrots, cows, the disastrous mistake of the “family cow” idea, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned to see our 2000 pound bull put his head under the rib cage of his 400 pound son and casually lift him, tossing him over the top strand of electric wire as easily as I'd thrown the lambs quarters over.

There was a big calf in the beet field. ¥¥

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