Yesterday was the day.
I’ve been devoting every free moment I have to fencing a beautiful 11 acre piece of land sprouting succulent grass just begging to be eaten by a cow. Situated directly across from our house (Gina and I are now surrounded on four sides by pasture - life’s not bad), the property was a hay field on which rich manure fertilizer was applied and grass harvested and hauled off. From now on, cows will harvest the grass where it grows and apply manure themselves, cycling nutrients without mechanical intervention.
After months of harvesting Locust trees, cutting posts, digging post holes, stringing wire, and hammering insulators, I completed the project and couldn’t wait to get the cows to the new pasture. One obstacle stood in our way: a road.
We’ve walked cows over hill and dale to neighbors’ grassland and back (about a mile of trails), but pavement was never something the herd encountered. The total distance they needed to walk was about seventy feet, and we set up a corridor to move them from the safety of one paddock, through no-man’s land on the road, and into their new spot.
With pickups parked in either direction flashing four-ways and a stop sign I found under a bridge when I was ten set in place to temporarily stop traffic, Dad and I got started on our strategically choreographed maneuvers: string wires across the road, open the gates, lead the cows across the pavement using a little hay as a lure, close the gates, take down the blockading wires on the road, wave traffic through. No problem.
Except that the cows had never encountered a hard surface. White snow in the road ditch stood starkly against black tar, creating a vivid contrast line that will often cause cattle to balk. About twenty crossed without pause, excited to explore new turf. Ten - the older ladies - took one look at the road and decided they would go no further. That’s a problem.
We’re not the yelling and screaming type around here, so even high stress animal management is a relatively quiet process to observe. Those remaining cows on the wrong side of the road were increasingly worried, however, as their herd instinct told them to join the majority and their survival instinct told them not to walk on the dark surface. Worried cows are the first ingredient in a disaster, and complete focus is required to ameliorate the distress. Dad and I were in the middle of totally revamping our plans when the car crept into our periphery.
Operated by a young woman who decided not to heed the stop sign and warning signals from the pickup, a red Cobalt crept up to our current workstation, adding an additional element to the cows’ already overloaded sensory system: movement. I held up a hand indicating ‘STOP’ and began maneuvers to abort the remainder of the crossing mission; it was best to get the animals back to comfort and allow them to calm down before adjusting our strategy and attempting another go. She did stop, for about a second, and then informed us of the obvious: she needed to get down the road.
I didn’t bother to tell the goof that there wasn’t any other conclusion that could be drawn from observing a person in a car on a road. Instead, yelling over my shoulder while Dad and I commenced the process of turning around the roadside animals, I said we needed just a minute to secure the bovines and then we’d clear the roadway, and she needed to stop moving her car. In response, she started driving forward again, and I realized what was happening: when people imagine cattle handling, they picture big sturdy fences, cattle trailers, crowds, shouting, sticks, and lots of ruckus. Our single strand guidance system is invisible to most people because they can’t imagine such a slight barrier can be used to contain such large animals. And, from an outsider’s perspective, Dad and I weren’t doing much of anything, though my heart was in my chest and my mind was racing to calculate every move. From the driver’s seat of a red Cobalt owned by someone who had never encountered a cow, the situation was clear: there were no wires crossing the road and the situation was completely under control. She just had to sneak by.
We finally got her stopped just inches from our wires, at which point she got mad, turned around, and sped off. About thirty seconds later we were done and cleared the roadway. In fact, the whole process, though it felt like an eternity, was less than three minutes. Patience, patience.
Later I called my friend Mark and he came to lend an extra hand for the second attempt, which, with hay spread on the pavement to soften the contrast, went smoothly, so the whole herd is together and they’re thrilled. Grass piled beneath the little bit of snow is a welcome break from hay, and they’re busily grazing their way around the paddock. There is something wholesome and real about a ruminant animal grazing, and every opportunity they have to do so is exhilarating.
Our culture is so far removed from food that people can see livestock handling in front of their nose and not recognize it. That young woman yesterday was completely clueless; not necessarily dumb, just totally uninformed. We can experience steak without ever experiencing a cow. That’s an extremely unnatural disconnect and it’s causing people who are yearning for substance and knowledge to reject steak completely, simply because it has become such a foreign object in their lives. To see and experience and understand a cow is to do the same for the food they provide, and people with that real life connection ‘get it.’ Knowing animals does not drive you away from steak, as many assume, it pulls you toward it.
Local food is important because it introduces real life back into the diets of real people. Local food can create a community in which a young woman on her way to a destination can encounter farmers and understand what’s happening and why, and she can react in a manner that is appropriate to the situation. Local food can integrate everyone into a wonderfully complex system that connects people to each other and to animals and to food. Local food can completely change a town.
Why did the cows cross the road? To demonstrate a relationship need that must be fostered in 2019. It’s not too early - stay tuned for our season of Grassfed Gadabouts that will put you and a cow in the same field. What a wonderful connection.