In Ireland, dairy farmers know of two seasons only. One of them is cold, dark, and arduous; The other is temperate, lush, and much more relaxed. One would hope that summer would be enough to recharge for the difficult days ahead, but this may not always be the case. In the winter, the cows stay in a big shed that is adjacent to the milking parlour; this is their home for half the year. When one enters the shed first thing in the morning, one will be greeted by resting cows. I say resting because I have never seen one fully unconscious myself: they seem to prefer lying on their side chewing away indefinitely. They all know it’s time for morning milking, but only the better-behaved ones will head toward the milking parlour without one having to herd them in. It doesn’t take much to bring the other ones into the waiting area, simply walking past them or a gentle poke would do the trick.

Cows are provided feed as a distraction when they are milked, it looks like pet food and supplements the cow’s nutrition needs for lactating. This brings me to doubt if the better-behaved cows aren’t just the most ardent feed lovers. This became a bit of an issue: Blacky, the smartest cow in the herd, knew how to open the sliding gate that separates the waiting area from the parlour. The gate is secured with a steel wire that snaps from time to time; each time it snapped, you could be sure that Blacky and a few of her friends would be inside the parlour, waiting for a ration. While Dermot milked the cows, I took care of the rest, which in summary was cleaning and forking silage. Forking silage demands a lot of strength and endurance. There is a fence between the cows and the silage, and the cows clumsily throw some of their food out of reach, the job is to bring that food closer to the fence with the fork for the cows to reach it. A forkful of silage is an amount that varies from man to man, I was never able to carry as much silage as Dermot, it was a simple way to tell that he had been doing it for many decades. The fence that separates the cows from the silage is about 40 yards long, it took me about five minutes to do the first half, and at least twice as long to do the second half. As the cows left the parlour, they headed straight to the now orderly silage. Once all were done, the only sound to be heard was that of fifty head munching, which was rather meditative.

As the days get longer, the cows sense it in the air that it would soon be time to go out to the pasture; once released, they rush outside in pure happiness. Along with their freedom comes a new companion: Ted, the bull. Ted lives separate from the cows in the winter, but in the summer they are always together. The unacquainted mind inevitably thinks that this is some sort of heaven on earth for the bull, but once one sees the weariness that results from his job, one is made to reconsider. It’s not just us humans who are creatures of habit, dairy cows have their routine, and they are quite strict about theirs. If we were late to milking, which happened often, they’d all be patiently waiting at the gate for us. If we were punctual, merely being seen by the cows would be enough, and they would walk from the paddock toward the parlour. Ted is a loyal companion, and he follows the cows wherever they go. When the cows are milked, he likes to hang out at the parlour; he seems receptive to being petted, but I always respected his might and petted him in the back in case he decided I wasn’t welcome anymore. Once the first set of cows is done, Ted heads back to the pasture with them. Life continues in this fashion during the good months, until the days get short and the grass stops growing. Then the cycle repeats.

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