Bessie Pays


[as published in Biodynamics, journal of the Biodynamic Association]

Woody Wodraska

When I went to let Bessie into the barn tonight, she was standing right at the gate and the strobing red light from the solar fence charger, mounted on the latch post, was reflected in her great brown eyes. No reproach in those eyes for all the standing and waiting she’d done while I got her stall ready. Rolled grain, three kinds, with apple cider vinegar and a dusting of roasted garlic powder…a fresh flake of hay to go with what she had picked over during milking this morning, two buckets of water from hose coiled in the water tank closet. Tonight’s a little shorter night than those early in January and back around the solstice…yet long enough for Bessie to pretty much clean up anything edible there in her stall—odd bits of hay and grain and alfalfa flakes that sift through her feed table. In the morning—we don’t much believe in early, early milking around here—after daylight, when Barbara and I have had coffee and bundled up for morning chores, Bessie will be there at her stall gate. Again no reproach; she just lets you know that she’s been waiting for a while. Another scoop and another squirt and dusting and a honkin’ big flake of alfalfa hay to hold her interest during milking. A short shank with a snap link tethers her to the table for her breakfast, while I clean out the accumulation of cowpies. She’s likely sleep-squashed one or two of them. A five-gallon bucket of sawdust gets spread out under her business end, and I turn to the wash bucket and udder rags.

“Whoa, Bess. Washin’ up.” I have to hold her tail out of the way, but I talk to her before I do. “Eh, girl, warm water.” Last thing to remember before leaving the house is to fill the wash bucket with hot water. Scrubbing her udder I feel the old girl letting down the milk, front quarters more taut than the rear. The udder swells twice its size before I’ve finished the washing.

“Little bucket now, Bess.” The first bit of milk goes into the pet bucket for the dog and maybe sometimes a barn cat. I put it down for the animals and come back to Bessie with the stainless steel, this-means-business bucket. “Big bucket, Bess, stand steady.” Now Bessie hasn’t once stopped snuffling and tonguing and chewing during all these ministrations, but her eyes see everything happening except directly behind her. Certainly she’s been aware of me coming in and out of her field, but she doesn’t have to attend to anything at all except her feeding, unless I do something out of the ordinary, which seldom happens. It’s my job as milker in this one-cow dairy to keep the routine to Bessie’s liking for things to go smoothly and predictably. Bessie rewards us by keeping her tail more or less quiet and stepping nicely aside with a rear hoof when required. And of course by letting that milk down easily.

Today, January 13, is Venus’s five month birthday, so we’re entering into Bessie’s sixth month of lactation. For the first three months Bessie’s primary job was nourishing Venus toward heifer-hood. We milked her mornings, after we separated mom and calf at nights when the calf was a month old. During the day they roamed the pasture together and Venus nursed at will. At night they went into adjacent stalls and Venus had to wait until morning. There was some milk for the family during that next two months, but Bessie held much of the cream for the calf.

So the first item on the paying-her-way balance sheet is: 1) Venus: as a bead heifer in a year or so, worth at least $1,000; she is a russet/henna beauty and if she has all the good-nature of her pa, Danny Boy, and the productivity of her ma, Bessie, she’ll be worth even more to us. 2) And then there’s that milk for the family for the first three months—one gallon a day for ninety days–$450 at five dollars a gallon [fresh, whole, raw milk for table use, cooking, cheese, yogurt, cream].

The ninety-day point in the lactation was when we separated Venus and Bessie formally. The just-weaned calf joined Danny Boy II, her half-brother bull calf who’s just ten days older. The milk fat calves go into winter on a bit of grain and plenty of hay, comforting each other over loss of mom’s teats.

After the calf is weaned, the quantity of milk Bessie provides the family doesn’t change much. It’s winter now and there’s little in the pasture for her. She too is getting by on hay and a little grain. But the quality of the milk goes way up. Since Bessie in no longer holding back cream for the calf, we now find four to five inches of cream at the top of the wide-mouth gallon jug in the frige. Add to this two more months of cream-rich milk, gallon a day for sixty days–$300.

3) Then there’s the manure. The daily deposits of manure Bessie leaves for us add up. In winter, when she’s in her stall from dusk to well past dawn, about half a wheelbarrow goes out from her stall each day; half a wheelbarrow of manure and sodden bedding. Say two cubic feet every day, or sixty cubic feet a month—two yards. Twenty-four yards in a year’s time for Bessie spends nights in her stall in spring and summer too, and we often clean up the heavily used pasture corner by the water tank and her shelter as well. That’s a decent-sized compost pile, say twenty feet long, six to eight feet at the base and four to five feet high. Twice a year her stall gets cleaned right down to the concrete, though we leave a foot or so of the trampled, soaked bedding and manure around the edges as microbiological “starter.” This adds up to another good-sized compost pile. We’re talking TONS of compost from one cow toward the fertility of Aurora Farm gardens; an arbitrary figure is $2,000.

4) Now Bessie is getting on in years. She’s what I’d call a matron cow, not yet finished with calf rearing, perhaps, but she’s already mothered six calves in her eight years at Aurora Farm—Whiteface, Rose, Buffy, Easter, Blue, Venus—six calves at an average $500 value, divided by eight, since we’re going to add these items up on a per year basis. That’s $375 per year in calves [a low estimate].

5) Now that we’re into the sixth month of lactation we can still expect a considerable quantity of milk, diminishing to be sure, over the next three or four months, say one-half gallon a day for ninety days at five dollars per gallon: $220.

GRAND TOTAL: $4,345 this year.

Holy Moley, Woody’s cooking the books! Is he trying to say his damn milk cow makes him four grand a year? One cow?

Okay, there are costs, but fewer than you’ll believe. We bought in $300-$400 worth of hay this year, for Bessie, the two calves, and for a while Danny Boy II’s mom. We buy in forty dollars worth of grain maybe ten times a year for feeding calves, chickens, and sometimes a pig, as well as Bessie. Her share of feed costs—maybe $500. There are no other costs. No vet bills. Bessie gets pasture, hay, grain, supplemented by garden wastes, herbs, garlic, cider vinegar, Agnihotra ash, a little Azomite.

Here’s the killer question: what about LABOR? You’re spending as much time with that cow, putting her in, taking her out, washing her bag, milking her, fixing fence, hauling manure, as most men do with their wives. Count the labor in there.

All right. Total labor per day, about an hour and a half, all told. That’s seven days a week and 365 days a year. Call it 600 hours. But don’t tell me I could make seven dollars an hour clerking down at the 7-11 and therefore the cow business is a wash.

You see, I apply Amish economics here. For example, where a cost accountant would charge against the farm to time, fuel and equipment wear expended, say, in hauling manure, the Amishman considers the manure spreading a benefit to the farm; the soil in improved for next season’s crops, the horses get exercise and training, and the driver gets fresh air and a look at the field.

I don’t consider the labor expended for Bessie’s care as a commodity, rather, it’s a service. It’s a service to the farm, to Biodynamics, to the planet. As a service, it’s my choice to render it and no cost accounting can touch it. The exercise keeps me healthy; the morning and evening rhythm is grounding; the attention to detail sharpens my perceptions; the nurturing character of the work allows me to express my feminine side. I am a better person for taking care of animals, and who will account for that? Who will tell me what that is worth?

Leaving aside the financial figures, we come to the intangibles, the interesting stuff. In a way, Bessie represents, calls forth the spirit of the place, the farm individuality. In her single-minded metabolic nature she is the biosystem around here. Her energy, her presence, her connection to the great cow oversoul, knits the place together. As she grazes or chews her cud, she’s aware of everything going on, seldom reacting with more than a looking up in th direction of the disturbance. But she knows. When the dogs got into the poison a clueless neighbor set out for coyotes, Bessie knew. When the bull was slaughtered Bessie knew.

Bessie’s calm being, her knowing, permeates every corner of the farm and, through her compost, enlivens especially the garden beds. When we contemplate more that the material details of our daily lives, when we take time to consider the layers and webs of existence in which we are enmeshed, when we remember what it’s like to be a peasant and to be possessed of the instinctive wisdom Rudolf Steiner spoke of so wistfully, we are grateful to know Bessie and to have our lives enriched by her.