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Cozying Up to Cows

When I became a partner on a small working dairy farm seven years ago, I stepped into a world I'd long admired from afar.

Here was open space, an outdoor life, and daily proximity to my favorite animals. "If you were an animal, which would you be?" I'd once been asked in an interview. "A cow," I had replied, without thought or hesitation. As I recall, the director of the adoption agency shot me a penetrating look, then smiled and shook his head. He'd screened many, many applicants, but had never heard that one before, he told me. Some months later, as my infant boy slept in my lap, I realized that it was not a bad response from a prospective mom.

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But it was a half truth, for I never wanted to be a cow, only to cozy up to cows: to horn in on their secret society, tread time in their slow serenity. For as far back as I can remember, I have even appreciated their scent.

A friend who understands my affinity, who journeyed to the farm with me in letters, recently shared a snippet from a colleague vacationing in a bucolic corner of eastern Germany: "I like to watch cows ... the sight of a grazing herd of cattle is one of the most beautiful and fascinating scenes on earth." Ah, distant soul mate.

I've had little success convincing most of my friends, however, that milking and mingling with cows on a daily basis really is the good life; that the milking is not something that has to be done, but something I find pleasurable to do, in satisfying company. This is probably not how all dairy farmers feel, but ours is a low-tech operation, the hallmark of which is a familial relationship with the animals. I know the 25 cows so thoroughly I can sort out and name individual members of the herd from a pasture away. Each has an identifying shape, stance, and way of moving - a "look," if you will.

My son, Tim, now 11, accepts as a matter of course that I can call three cows by name and stand aside as they file into the parlor, bent on their favorite stanchions. That, he rightly assumes, is how cows behave, given the chance to be the discriminating creatures they are.

"You need one of those herringbone parlors," an acquaintance familiar with our layout but not our unhurried ways advises. "It'd be more efficient."

Granted. "But I like being on their level," I explain, shuddering to think of our small, sunlit milk room revamped to his vision. The bi-level design he has in mind puts the milker in a sunken pit, eye level with the undersides of six or more cows that stand on the floor above. The udders are washed, the machines attached, and the milk collected. With the pull of a lever the cows are released. No twirling their ears as they leave - you couldn't reach them if you tried. You could forget you've handled a creature with dark, beguiling eyes.

IN our parlor, we all walk the same cement, and there is more going on than eye contact. We move around and between the cows as we work, rubbing up against their bulky warmth, perhaps more than necessary in winter. Sometimes an animal shifts her footing, and I find myself pleasantly stuck in a vise as caressing as a waterbed. On very cold days, we pause to warm our hands on their hips, in the steam of hay-scented breath.

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Charlotte knows how to expand the moment. She backs from her stanchion after milking and waits. I hardly have to lift my arms to rub her head and scratch the loose folds under her bowed neck. "How ya doing, old beauty?" She answers with a soft noise that is the source of all lowing.

We miss out on economies of scale. The dairy industry, consolidating to fewer and bigger farms, threatens to squeeze us out. We've thought of adapting: building that herringbone parlor, doubling our herd, speeding up the milking, culling the Charlottes. But we know we'll do no such things. Economies of scale leave so little room for luxuries of style. So little time to stand back and smell the cows.

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