Thursday, June 1, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood

The cow days of August


Wet with dew in the morning, dry and dusty by noon, the August grass is course and thin and dying. Even before each day gets too far along, the heat presses everything into the shade. Hot and heavy. Only the cicadas give voice as the birds and squirrels hide in cover. Sadly enough, it’s time to face the facts. School looms on the horizon. Vacations are coming to an end. Work awaits. Only one last gasp of summer remains.joes1

It’s the cow days of August.

The first bull comes out, scared and stubborn. Can you blame him? The Red Angus is clearly not liking how his day is going. He is a hot mess even with the air conditioners roaring. The arena is packed with spectators. People are yelling and clapping. The announcer voice crackles over the loudspeaker. The smell of corn dogs and nachos and ripe manure drifts around the sanded ring. The bearded large man in the feed cap, and the tough wiry woman in a white T-shirt, push and nudge and push and nudge to get the reluctant bull onto the scales. At last we get a weight.

Ahhhh… pretty darn big, but not big enough to win the Super Bull contest at the Iowa State Fair.

Meanwhile, at the dairy barn…

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“Cows like to be milked. It really relaxes them. Most farmers milk twice a day. Some milk three times a day. The average dairy cow produces eight to 10 gallons of milk every single day.”joes2

Celina Young, a student from Iowa State University, smiles. She is a fountain of knowledge as she lectures outside the milking parlor at the Iowa State Fair. Even with her microphone on the fritz, she hikes up her voice and carries on.

“She’s going to dip that teat in iodine and let it sit there about 30 seconds. Then she’ll use a rag to wipe it off. After that she’s going to take two strips of milk out of the teat, and this is going to serve two purposes. She gets a visual assessment of the milk, she wants to be sure it is the right color and nothing in the milk that might be wrong. The other thing is, it stimulates milk let down. We can’t just expect to put a milking machine on her right away and let her milk go.”

The crowd and I all shake our heads in agreement, “No, we certainly can’t expect that.”

Back at the Super Bull competition…joes3

The trailer backs up to the opening into the arena. The loud and raucous spectators are ready for the second bull. Heck, we are all old hands now. We see how it’s done. Get the bull out of the trailer, guide him to the scales, get him weighed and whisk him back home. Simple. Come on. Let’s go.

Oh my lord! What is that?

The crowd stops breathing. We all stop breathing. Out of the chute of the trailer comes a massive, white, muscled monster. On its toes. Rippling, snorting, prancing, invincible. It roars onto the sand. And the crowd gasps with delight and fear at the rawness and power spinning off this Charolais bull.

“To milk a cow by hand, it is pretty similar to the machines. We still want to go through all the hygiene.” Celina smiles after her group presentation, happy to be talking about milking and farmers and a way of life that she loves. She comes from a long line of dairy farmers and wants to make a career of informing people about the important role of farmers in our lives.

“OK, so what I always tell beginners, you want to start by pinching these fingers, like that, and then pulling straight down. When you get more advanced, you can do a rolling technique with the fingers. When I get going with both hands… just like that.”joes4

And a stream of milk shoots from the cow, which continues to chew, nonplussed.

Meanwhile, the monster Charolais stands on the scales. He barely fits. Muscles dance under his skin. Listen, there is no doubt to any of us watching that this bull is doing exactly what he wants to do. He’s willing to get weighed, he’s willing to get fussed over and have his picture taken, and he’s willing to not jump the barrier and crush us. For this we are all thankful. Unless, of course, he changes his mind.

“Dairy cows eat about 100 pounds of feed every day and a bathtub full of water,” explains Celina. “Why are dairy cows so skinny? Dairy cows are like Olympic athletes. They are high-performance animals. They eat all that feed and drink all that water, and all that energy goes into making milk. Other cows are like body builders. They are meant to put on lots and lots of muscles.”

The Charolais bull, owned by Gene Bedwell of Osceola, does not win this day.  With a weight of 2,726 pounds, the Charolais was 167 pounds short of the title. As for the milk, it keeps flowing from the dairy cows into large containers. Splashing and rolling in a stream stronger than the flow from a garden hose. And then it’s suddenly over. The cow is meekly led away. Show is done. End of the night.

So we all start to drift home. School, work, no fun all await at the other side of the fair. September is pulling us forward with an unwelcomely firm grip.

Ah, but what’s this? In the birthing barn. A new calf is born.

Hah! It’s still the cow days of August. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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