Chapter 6: To All the 'Girls' we've Loved Before

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"Remember 54?" Kanute asks. His lips tighten in sadness.

"The operation on the dairy yard?" My eyes blink furiously as tears unexpectedly well up and threaten to overflow. Could we ever forget the cow whose stomach became twisted and totally blocked for some obscure reason? Our Vet attempted the near-impossible as the only solution to maybe save her-an operation on the concrete yard outside the dairy. We were his assistants in unusually mild conditions. Maybe not exactly the sterile operating room any of us would have ideally desired, but sometimes you simply must take what you can get. The Vet anaesthetised her, opened her up, untwisted her stomach with his hands plunged deep inside her belly, then proceeded to sew her up.

"SO many layers," I shake my head, still incredulous of what I witnessed. "Firstly inside, and then more and more layers of muscle and flesh until he reached the outside." It was a massive job, with her breathing deeply and all that flesh moving under his hands. As he made the last stitch, she took one last breath, gave a huge sigh... and that strong and regular breathing stopped. We stood there in disbelief, but it was true. She was gone.

All cows must be numbered for identification and record-keeping purposes-and when you see those numbers in their ear tags twice a day, you become familiar with most. This was easier in our day when our 65 milkers were pretty much the 'norm' to support a family quite comfortably (today the average herd is around 260 cows, with a number of dairies milking up to the 2,000 mark). I wonder if it's still possible for some of the 'girls' to truly stand out from the crowd, as ours did? I think not.

"How many of our girls do you reckon you named after our first year?" There's a teasing glint in Kanute's eye. I smirk and roll my eyes and refuse to reply. As if he didn't know! And once again, without warning my eyes prickle as a few of the ones I did name flit through my thoughts.

Two memorable girls were pure Jersey cows. One was the oldest in our herd, 'Granny', and the other almost the youngest, 'Honey'. (When we were still 'new chums' and thought we would name all the girls, Honey was named for her obvious rich colouring.) She was a gorgeous little cow, naughty as... but therein lays another story, coming in another chapter.

Both cows had the typically expressive brown eyes and sculptured face of their breed, and Granny would constantly peer back over her shoulder with a questioning expression in her eyes -"Whatcha doing?" As she never hurried anywhere, her huge udder swung gently and rhythmically from side to side as she patiently plodded behind the herd. My Mum was an avid china-painter in those days and for one of Kanute's special days-a birthday maybe, or one Father's Day before we had kids-she painted a tiny teapot-shaped teaspoon holder, with a picture of Granny. As always, she was eyeing the world over her shoulder.

"Do we still have that Granny?" asks Kanute. "Haven't seen her for a while."

"You're right." For a moment or two I can't think why not. Then I raise my finger, "Ha! I know." These days I make our tea and coffee on the cupboard next to the sink, and drop the teabags and spoons there. Laziness? Old age? Bit of both, I guess. With or without that painted reminder, Granny never fails to bring a smile to our faces and a rush of warm memories to our hearts. Thoughts of old age (of humans and animals alike), sidetrack me down another thought path.

Dairy farmers know that sometime in their herd's lives each will pass their peak milk production and begin the drop-back to an uneconomic level. Despite the highest hopes for a long, productive life for the best producers, there comes a moment of acceptance of the inevitable parting. Accidents, disease and calving problems are amongst the unfortunate downturns that can change things overnight. The high costs to produce that milk-feed and fencing, electricity and machinery, (the list goes on forever), plus those hefty mortgage commitments-means it all adds up to the need for new cows to be introduced to the herd annually.

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