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.
13 thoughts on “Bella’s Last Bale: Goodbye To A Friend”
Geez that’s heartbreaking. But so beautiful too. I don’t know how you do it.
But…it should be difficult to raise animals. And eat animals. And cull animals. All these things should keep us from taking them for granted. And relishing very bite.
If more people had these kinds of experiences, less of them would be going to the drive-thru window for a buck or two.
Thank you for showing kindness, love and gratitude.
Sent from my iPhone
Wow … made me cry buckets. You are such a gift …
Absolutely beautiful, Farmer Bob! Your essay has me in tears and loving both you and Bella. Whew! Such a lovely piece. Thank you, Kathie D.
Absolutely beautiful, Farmer Bob! Your essay has me in tears and loving both you and Bella.
Whew! Such a lovely piece.
Both moving and thought provoking. Having watched her grazing out our kitchen window for the last five years, when the herd returns next summer it won’t quite feel the same. RIP Bella.
I love your sharing of such special moments of your life on the farm. This was very special and a lovely tribute to Bella xoxo
Almost makes me wished i had met her…..nice tribute to Bella (beautiful)…..
Bob, you are a wonderful writer! I have just read this poignant tribute to Bella….and then reread all your stories….each one sharing with the reader your love of the land and the creatures among us. You have us remembering all our past feelings of loss and sadness when our dog or cat was no longer with us to arch their head for the perfect scratch.
I love the way your use of analogies as you describe your experiences.!
Keep up the writing……am still tearful about Bella….
I enjoyed the lovely images and sharp writing. Hope to read more!
When we arrived in Tamworth circa 1983, we became “Homesteaders” believing that we were following in the steps of the Nearings. We found that we were more skilled at raising animals than growing vegetables and when word got out that we wanted to raise farm animals people started calling us. Thus we acquired a cow, a goat chickens and geese because their previous owners could no longer take care of them. In those days the cost of hay was not so high as it is today, so having a few non productive animals didn’t seem like a big deal. We had the cow artificially inseminated, and it took right away. I recall out ten year old daughter coming up the driveway and seeing the AI guy in the process of ensuring that Raindrop would have a calf. When she came in the door she asked ,”What is that man doing to our cow’ Her father responded ” He’s breeding her so she will have a calf and we will have milk” . Incredulous, the little girl said “Himself?” Raindrop became like a pet. She was rather small and had huge eyes. I used to moo to her when I saw her in the field, and she mooed back. The children on the school bus heard me and asked our daughter ” Why does your mother stand outside the house mooing.?” The saddest day I had was having to sell Raindrop . I never knew what became of her but I was no longer able to keep her as we had to move away from our farmhouse to live in a nearby town.
This is so very poignant ( and so well written)…you’ve done Bella proud, sir.
A very tough “Pencil” indeed. Your words and imagery are perfect. I feel like I was with you.