A COW , A CALF, AND A BULL COME TO AURORA FARM
It’s well past the 24th of the month and Bessie hasn’t come into heat. This is likely very good news. If she has settled with a calf that means Danny Boy did his job, earned his keep. Rosebud has missed two heats, so it’s likely she’s pregnant too. And Dexter’s doing fine, he’s growing fast and he’s good natured to boot. All’s well in the barn at Aurora Biodynamic Farm.
Rosebud: Dexter cow, 2 years old (horned);
Dexter: Dexter steer calf, 4-5 months old (horned);
Danny Boy: Kerry bull, 2 years old (horned);
Bessie: the Aurora Farm home cow, Jersey-Brown Swiss cross maybe 12 years old, (etheric horns).
Woody } Herdspersons
When I arrived at Aurora last autumn Bessie was due to freshen, to have her 8th or 9th calf. When two weeks went by with no sign of imminent calving, we called in the AI guy, Jordy. Jordy does artificial insemination with cows all over the Kootenay River Valley and he’d been here nine and a half months ago to impregnate Bessie with sperm from a donor bull. [How do they get that sperm anyway? You don’t want to know…] After an examination that had him sweating and grunting armpit deep in Bessie’s rear end, Jordy declared that he didn’t believe she was pregnant at all. He was sweating and grunting not so much with the exertion, but because this was the second year in a row Bessie had failed to deliver a calf after his ministrations.
Though Jordy had some ready explanations having to do with possible mineral deficiencies in the feed and his experience that Brown Swiss sometimes take a year or two off in the middle of their calving careers, Barbara and I began talking about getting a bull. Artificial insemination, with all its advantages, seemed to us a chancey thing, and, well, a cheap shot frankly, at least from the cow’s point of view. Nothing, we figured, would get Bessie back into breeding shape quicker than the hormone-pumping sight, sounds, and smell of a bull nearby, and the ensuing…er, activities. While we were at it, we figured, we’d get another milk cow with a calf by her side.
Woody: “Barbara, I have an imagining of a little herd of these black cows on this hilltop…I can just see ’em here…with calves…and a bull. Wha’dya think? We need a bull here…”
Barbara: [hesitating] “We need a NICE bull here…”
Woody: “Ralph what do you think about this mineral deficiency thing in the local hay?”
Ralph: “You people grow herbs here, don’t you?”
Barbara: “Biodynamic herbs, Ralph…”
Ralph: “Feed ’em herbs. They’ll take what minerals they need out of herbs.”
In _The Family Cow_, Dirk van Loon tells how he approached a local Vermont extension agent with questions about family cows, only to be told: ” ‘Family cow’s a thing of the past…there’s no money in a family cow…Only work.’ He…looked me sharp in the eye and challenged, ‘Fifteen tons of manure a year! You going to tell people that?’ ” Well, your average Biodynamic farmer sees things a little differently than the average extension agent, and that 15 tons is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s Bessie’s manure that has brought increasing fertility, burgeoning life, to the Aurora Farm seed and kitchen gardens these past several years, via Biodynamically prepared compost. Far from being a liability on the farm balance sheet, manure is an asset. In peasant times gone by you measured a farm’s wealth by the size of its manure pile.
In a rural community like ours you ask around to the neighbors when you’re looking for a cow, and it didn’t take long to find Ralph. Ralph keeps some cows, a few jennies, a jackass, and a huge brood sow a few miles up the Goat River from here. Ralph had for sale a Dexter cow with calf at her side, and a Kerry bull. Now the Dexter, from Ireland, is noted for its small size (Rosebud can’t weigh much more than 600 pounds) and ability to do well on poor forage. Small size works for me; I’m no longer young, never was much for upper body strength, and there are times when you just have to manhandle a cow a little bit, establish your dominance. And rough forage is something we have plenty of on our 31 acres here.
Lady Loder writes of Dexters in Newman Turner’s 1952 book _Herdsmanship_:
“Being a mountain breed they are extremely hardy and can with advantage be kept out of doors all the year round…they are capable of thriving on the closest grazed pasture….I found I could keep five Dexters with the food required for three Jerseys.”
That sounded fine to me.
The Kerry is a little larger than the Dexter, also from Ireland, also black all over. Since we aren’t committed to “purebred” stock, but rather to a breed or cross-breed which will do well here, Danny Boy, the Kerry bull, looked like a good candidate for sire of the expanded Aurora Farm herd.
Rosebud’s calf, whom we named Dexter, is a sturdy little guy. I pictured him with a buddy, under yoke. We haven’t yet found a suitable yoke partner for him, but we will; or we can work him alone. There’s plenty of work to be done around here that would suit a small ox team: moving logs, carting manure, compost, and firewood.
My major qualification for writing this piece is my willingness to stick my neck out, make plain that I don’t know it all, but will do it anyway. There are many readers of _BIODYNAMICS_ much more qualified and experienced to be writing about cows than I. True, I’ve kept a cow or two from time to time on smallholdings, and spent much of the last year of my Biodynamic training in the dairy barn, which gives me a lot more experience than most folks, but I’m not an expert stockman by any means. I’m a guy who likes cows, the routines of milking and mucking, and, of course, manure.
Not just any manure. I’ve used horse; I’ve messed with goat and rabbit and worm manure, and with purely plant-based compost; but I’ve always come back to cows. In 1921, speaking to a group at the Research Institute in Stuttgart, Rudolf Steiner said, “In point of fact, the only really healthy fertilizer is cattle manure….the only ideal fertilizer….This must be the basic principle.” [SFRA, pp 244-245}
In the Lecture Four of the Agriculture Course, he elaborates:
What is this manure in reality? It is outer nourishment that has
entered into the animal, that has been absorbed to some extent
and give occasion for the dynamic development of forces within
the organism, but which has then been excreted, rather than serving
primarily to enrich the animal with substance. In passing through the
organism, however, it has become pervaded with astral and etheric
activity. It has become permeated with nitrogen-bearing and oxygen-
bearing forces. The mass that emerges as manure is impregnated
with all this. [SFRA, p 71]
He then goes on to present the rationale and method for making Biodynamic Preparation #500, horn manure, perhaps the most significant and far reaching passage in the lectures, arguably the foundation of fertility management in Biodynamic agriculture.
With this in mind, the mucking out of stalls becomes less a burdensome chore and more a ritual in service to the Planet, a reversal of the trend toward extractive, poisonous agriculture. Driving a wheelbarrow of manure and soiled bedding to a compost pile, offloading it, become a celebration of life, an affirmation.
For the first time in 10 years now I have the chance to build a manure pile by hand. The winter manure from four large animals—150 pounds a day, 3 cubic feet more or less–is a meaningful but not an overwhelming amount. Unfrozen and with the right moisture content, it’s a plastic material and, forkful by forkful, I can construct a nicely shaped pile outside the south end of the barn, six feet wide or a little more at the base, sloping up to about shoulder high. I’ve used dumptrucks and front end loaders and manure spreaders to make piles, but this is the best–forking out of a wheelbarrow, sculpting to a pleasing and efficient shape, retrieving the odd turd that rolls down the side and finding a place for it in the grand scheme of things, with a sense of its preciousness. Before the Spring Equinox this pile will be ready for the Biodynamic compost preparations, another ceremony evoking fertility. We’ll apply a skin to it then, a thatch of waste hay that will protect it as it matures, and when we put the gardens to bed next fall, this is the compost we’ll use, gratefully, with thanks to the animals and the forces behind the preps.
“Practice Conscious Love on animals first…they are more responsive…”
–G. I. Gurdjieff
We OWE these animals, comfort, feed, bedding, and good water. We owe them our attention and our love. We’ve all seen animals knee-deep in filth and mud, and they seemed to be doing fine, more or less…but.
Sure it takes a lot of time. For us, with four animals, it takes about an hour to do the chores that need to be done, twice a day, every day. That’s not counting the inevitable, occasional, morning’s work fixing fence, repairing stall doors or mangers, and those other odd little time consuming jobs that crop up every few days around the barn and pastures. I’m guessing that nine of 10 readers–at least among those who don’t keep large animals–are saying to themselves, “Well, that’s too much time; after all, TIME = MONEY.” I strive never to criticize what someone else has to do to earn a living, but the equation around here is more like TIME = FERTILITY = RIGHT LIVELIHOOD. The best investment we can possibly make toward a sustainable productive life is in the fertility of our land. Economy of scale? We’re not interested in eight cows, even though eight would be scarcely more trouble or time; our interest rather is in the number of cows this land can support, and we’re still finding out what that number is.