I had been dreading Bella’s final day on the farm for weeks. Her death was on the horizon just as sure as the setting sun, and I knew this only because, in fact, I had scheduled her dying day for January 2nd.
Bella came into this world back in April of 2012, sliding into daylight at 100 pounds, warm and wet like August rain, the soon to be crowned Queen of Yogurt. But there were days and weeks and months of work before her reign would really take hold on this farm, on this community. She nursed from a half-gallon bottle morning, noon and night for three months, inevitably forming a bond between us that someday I would break.
After the milk it was all grass all the time, the credo of a cow. Lush pastures in summer and sweet smelling hay in winter. Like all milk cows, she was bred to have her first calf at age two, and shortly thereafter I discovered that her milk made superior yogurt to any of the many cows I had milked through the years. Each jar was firm and rich with a memorable layer of cream on top, the probiotic crown from the queen.
She was a nervous milker at first and that can be dangerous, particularly in her case. She was the biggest cow I had ever raised, close to 1,300 pounds, and one kick from her thickly muscled hind leg could have me making yogurt in that great creamery in the sky. This was a job for Mozart, said a musical friend, so I borrowed some CDs and played them during milking.
It actually seemed to help, and over time I slowly weaned her off classical music and back to the quiet hum of the vacuum pump, barn swallows flying in and out, the rhythmic sound of other cows chewing and my own whispers of encouragement.
The years went by, three, four and five, seeing her each and every day in the barn and pastures, by now the dominant cow in a hierarchy of a half dozen animals. Her remarkable yogurt, some 10,000 quarts in her life, went down to the farmers’ market at 50 to 100 per week. I thanked her each morning, scratched her neck beneath that giant head with Viking-like horns, then sent her outside for another day of work.
It is not like having a dog. Cows will generally play it cool, showing little emotion. They will not adore you or wag their tail in delight. But every one of them does indeed have a personality, and daily contact over many years unlocks their little secrets, like where to scratch until they close those big, dark eyes in bliss. I knew all of Bella’s little secrets: favorite trees to rub against, places to give birth, and which cow was her best friend.
So why January 2nd, why now when cows can live into their teens just like a dog? In a word, biology, a breakdown in bovine biology which wouldn’t have mattered at all if she were a dog. Most of us don’t want our dogs (or teenagers) getting pregnant, but all of us want our cows getting pregnant. That is what stimulates a fresh lactation each year, and that is how they earn their keep. Each cow eats 200 bales of hay to get through a typical New England winter, and all of that hard work in the hayfield quickly removes cows from the category of “pet.” I can’t keep pets at 200 bales each.
My artificial inseminator (the “AI guy”) tried three times during the summer of 2017 to get Bella pregnant, with no luck, but I couldn’t ship her. This was Bella. So he tried again last summer with the aid of a vet, and I received the final phone call in August. “She’s not pregnant.”
The death sentence had been handed down. Our butcher was booked until January 2nd which I was quietly happy about, giving me several more months to enjoy the sight and company of this memorable cow the size of a small car. It also gave her time to hang with her herd, “retired” for a few months, able to enjoy those final desired bales of second-cut red clover.
Protocol at the butcher required she be delivered the day before slaughter. That gives the animals time to calm down from the stress of transport, and it made New Year’s Day her final day on the farm.
Morning came with clear skies and mild temperatures, insuring a more comfortable ride for Bella and a less stressful ride for me. Nothing raises blood pressure like the combination of a wintry mix and pulling a trailer down the highway with an animal on board. I hadn’t slept well, worrying.
After milking the other cows and finishing my morning chores, it was time to put a rope halter on Bella and lead her from the barn for her last time, and onto the waiting trailer. She knew something was wrong when I approached her with the halter, something I had not used on her since she was a frisky calf. I put her majestic head in my arms asked her to just follow me one last time.
Part of me wanted her to resist with more than her mild hesitation. Part of me wanted her to deliver a good bruising to my vulnerable body so I could feel more affirmation in the awful duties of the day. But none of that happened. She trusted me. I started the truck and pulled her away from the only little world she had ever known.
Ninety minutes later, thoroughly stressed, she retained enough trust to back out of the trailer and follow me to an empty stall at the facility. I weigh less than her hind leg, and I always marvel with gratitude at how easily they give themselves over to our wishes, the embodiment of willing. I pulled the halter from her head and closed the gate. I thanked her one last time for the gift of her life, and my sadness was only surpassed by her confusion.
That unfamiliar stall was where I left Bella, alone for one more night in the complicated world of hard choices. When I think I know for sure the goodness or correctness of any aspect in this journey through farming and life, I think of my day like a circle, 360 degrees, 360 ways to see that New Year’s Day. One view looks straight across at another, each one delivering a question mark or two, something to simmer as I pointed the truck back home, pulling an empty trailer but feeling for many, many miles like I was still carrying a heavy load.