“You’ve got to name her Dottie,” says Gar, a volunteer helper, nodding toward the cow in the chute, a beautiful white cow covered with black spots. “Done,” I say jotting it down. I have my own naming convention based on the cow’s mother’s name, or where we bought the cow, or what I know of her personality, but I have no particular name in mind for this cow – she’s new to our herd – so I’m willing to take Gar’s suggestion. Keeping our volunteers happy is part of my job today, so I give Gar the right to name this cow.
Dottie stands calmly while Bernie the vet probes for indications of pregnancy and watches as my husband, Will, inserts the vaccination syringe under the skin at her neck. “She’s good to go,” I say after I’ve recorded the vet’s verdict on her pregnancy and his estimation of her due date. Will swings the headlock bar up and the newly vaccinated, newly named Dottie moves out onto the grass.
Molly’s next. She’s a black and white cow, too, but with a white belt on black background. I know her black face and distinctive top knot well and I greet her with a scratch on her head. Molly’s often the leader in the herd’s daily move to fresh grass, particularly keen to move out in front. Like most of the cows who take the lead, Molly’s an older female, but unlike most other lead cows, she’s receptive to people’s approach and has walked toward me from time to time in an open field, obviously seeking my attention. Even while standing with her newborn calf in the spring, she lets me get close to her and stroke her head.
“Nope,” says Bernie the vet. I whirl toward him, alarmed. He senses an accusation and prolongs his examination. “I’m double-checking,” he offers, his arm embedded in the cow up to his shoulder. “Nope, no fetus.”
I turn away, head down, searching for breath. I wasn’t expecting this. Molly has given birth to four calves, all lovely creatures, and there was every reason to think she’d be pregnant this year as well. Molly, beautiful Molly, affectionate Molly, my friend Molly is no longer a member of my beloved “mother and calf” herd; she’s beef.
Gar watches me compose myself and says, “Aw, you can keep her, right?” No we can’t. The three acres of grass that Molly would eat in a year’s time are too precious to spend on a cow who’s neither prime market beef nor producing a calf. But I don’t try to explain the economics of cattle raising to Gar in the midst of this morning’s pressured work scene. Gar is feeling my affection for Molly but I need all of us to stay focused on our tasks – filling syringes, resetting the scale, recording changed ID numbers, so, for now, I let her assume that Will and I will simply keep Molly, an unproductive member of the herd, as a sort of pet because I love her.
Molly’s fate recedes from my mind as we work our way through the rest of the herd, weighing, vaccinating, replacing lost ear tags, and checking for pregnancies among the mature females. We’re well into the once-a-year ritual known as “working the cows” in which friends and neighbors help us walk each of our 174 cattle through the barn into a metal stall–known as a chute — which constrains the animals just enough so we can accomplish what we need to do. Bernie is kind and works with a bemused patience, gently pushing a calf’s head back through the horizontal side bars of the chute through which it had hoped to escape. When we finish, tired and spattered with manure, our shoulders drop as the tension leaves them and we break into smiles. Gary hugs me, Gar thanks me for inviting her, and Niels, a veteran of these cattle-working days, asks who ate all the bagels while he was checking ear tags.
A day later, sitting at my computer to record the data gathered during yesterday’s marathon, I mull Molly’s changed destiny and begin to reconcile myself to her loss. It’s been five years since I first experienced the wrench of saying good bye to a cow I loved. My grief for Miss Piggy hit me hard and pushed me to soul-searching analysis of my role on the farm. Up to the moment that Will told me of his decision to include Miss Piggy in the next slaughterhouse group, I’d hidden behind the notion that my husband was the cattle farmer and I was an innocent observer. Our decision to buy the herd that our neighbor had grazed on our land for a dozen or so years had been a joint one but it had been made with the understanding that my very full-time job in the city would be my paramount personal responsibility. Will would make the farming decisions: he’d acquired the expertise that guided decision-making and he would take bottom-line responsibility for the herd and its well-being. For the first three years, while I held onto my city job, my primary gift to the farm enterprise, along with weekend assistance with herding and calving and record-keeping, was my affection for the cows. I sat with them, studied them, photographed and named them. I grew especially attached to Miss Piggy, a large and rather slow-moving red and white cow, named for being the last one to abandon grazing when the herd moved to new pasture.
The prospect of Miss Piggy’s slaughter had activated my sense of ownership: I could save her simply by refusing to let her go. The thrilling thought of keeping her spurred me to practical planning, and the difficulties had quickly crowded in. Where would I keep her? Cows are herd animals and it would be cruel to keep a cow alone, even if I had a fenced backyard. Keeping her in the herd would waste the labors of my fellow farm workers and violate the ethos of economic efficiency that fuels our commitment to keeping grass-fed beef maximally affordable. Imagining a magical location for her maintenance, I pondered that old age is not kind to animals who weigh 1200 pounds and recognized that eventually I would watch my Miss Piggy fail. Keeping her would require me to go above and beyond my daily routines to care for her, and, brutally honest with myself, I’d admitted I didn’t want the responsibility of a very large pet. Facing the inevitable conclusion, I’d grieved, not as a victim of her loss but as a loving yet fully responsible participant in her death.
Now, thinking of Molly, the ache of anticipated loss sends me to the list of practical reasons for letting her go. Molly is only 5-1/2 years old, but her failure to get pregnant means that the risk of her continuing barren at an age too old for prime beef can’t justify the amount of grass she’ll eat before next breeding. I recite the impossibilities of keeping her as my own beloved cow understanding, at some level, that this is part of my journey through the stages of grief. I’ve learned some things about how to work myself through this process, and I come to more or less accept Molly’s departure in the course of the afternoon. The ache will remain – and will arise again when other loved cows must go – and I can rub it with my tongue the way I’m drawn to rub a sore spot on my gum and make it hurt or I can plant my tongue at the base of my mouth. I rehearse my complicity in Molly’s death by revisiting Gar’s implied question: How can you slaughter a cow you love? The answer lies in simple logical deduction: the only reason a cattle farmer gives an animal life is so he or she can take it away to garner “meat.” That’s the business. But the simple logic belies the emotional complexity of loving and eating cows.
Visitors to the farm remind us of that complexity as they walk amidst the herd, watching the cows pursue their calm, persistent work of grazing. Often someone will offer a sort of “heh heh” comment about beef, perhaps joking that I shouldn’t let the cows see the freezers in the farm store. To be sure, many visitors warm to the cows directly and experience the charm of animals in their element. Some parents take obvious pleasure in instructing children about cows’ habits or pointing out hooves, udders, and horns. But beef jokes are frequent enough to reveal how much we rely on humor to encompass that unspeakable transition from animal to food. Elmer Fudd looks at Daffy Duck and, in the bubble of his imagination, sees him trussed and roasted. Cartoon cows carry comically misspelled placards saying, “Eat Mor Chickin.” Some visitors giggle, some wince, some stare blankly when the notion of “beef” arises in the presence of living, breathing cows. Maybe the relevant question isn’t “how can you slaughter animals you love?” — most of our visitors come to buy beef, after all — but “how can you love the animals you slaughter?”
In the farm store a customer practically barks, “No, I don’t want to see the cows!” when I offer her the possibility of walking out to the pasture. A middle-aged woman like myself, she asserts: “I’m satisfied to know they’re well treated and happy. I don’t want to see what I’m going to eat!” Her voice is loud, as if she’s proud of being horrified at the thought of looking at an animal that’s the source of her dinner. Perhaps she’s simply squeamish but the square of her shoulders feels like self-righteousness to me, as if she believes her aesthetic sensibility constitutes a moral virtue. She’s stopping herself at the brink of that awful transition from animal to food and I wonder if it’s fear she’s feeling.
I want to tell her how utterly lovely cows are and that all living things die and that animals can be honored while they’re being cared for and that death itself does not rob any being of the dignity of its life. I want to exult in the beauty of cows and introduce her to Temple Grandin, the animal scientist, designer of humane procedures for cattle slaughter and self-professed lover of cows: “Cows are the animals I love best,” she writes. In Grandin’s loving analysis, we get to have these beautiful creatures because we eat them. Farmers in my experience are not horrified at the juxtaposition of animal and food. We accept that death, or, more pointedly, killing, lies between animal and food. But neither do we joke. The death of animals, Will reflects, is what Epicurus says of human death: “Death means nothing to us, because that which has been broken down into atoms has no sensation....” Death is simply death, but the transition to it is part of the animal’s life and dignity must be assured.
Some days later, I drive to the barn in the darkness that’s just beginning to give way to daylight. I’m taking Will a sandwich for his journey to the slaughterhouse. The snuffling sounds from the trailer tell me the cattle have been loaded. I stand on the trailer’s step and look in. Molly’s there with five young steers. They study me, seemingly curious at my appearance but calm overall. I reach over to scratch Molly’s head one last time.
Thank you, I say. Thank you for being a Lowland Farm cow, for letting all of our visitors look at you and for letting small children pet you. Thank you for leading your herd-mates to new fields and for being a good mother. Thank you for your calves and, now, for the meat we will eat. Thank you for the years we’ve had of the beauty of your silhouette on the hillside. Thank you.
After careers in academia (Psychology Department, NYU) and mental health service administration, Barbara Felton became a farmer, raising cattle and pigs with her husband in Warwick, New York. Farming for the past eight years in an area close to intensely urban locales, she has written about the juxtaposition of rural and urban world views. She has many publications in academic journals including a personal essay published in Psychiatric Services (June 2014). Her personal essays have appeared in Dirt magazine and skirt!