Every morning, I move the cows to a fresh paddock. We give the cows a new piece of pasture every 24 hours; this is known as rotational grazing, and it is essential to the good health of both the land and the animals feeding upon it. Owing to the marvel of electric fencing technology, it is not hard work, although given that our pasture is rather steep in places, it is not uncommon for me to break a sweat tromping up and down the hill with a fence reel in my hands. For those of you who have never greeted the rising sun with sweat beaded on your forehead, I highly recommend it.
I often think of chores as being something of practice for me, perhaps not unlike meditation or prayer is for some. And moving the cows is for me the core of this practice, at least during the six months I have the luxury of doing so (the other six months, I have the luxury of chipping ice from the animals’ water bowls, throwing bales of hay over their respective fences, and sweeping snow from the solar panels). Of all the daily chores I perform on this ground, moving the cows is the most graceful, the most like a dance. The cows gather at the corner of fence they know from experience will soon drop, shifting from hoof to hoof in anticipation, their watchful eyes following my progress. Cows are not terribly ambitious creatures – this is much of what I love about them – but the prospect of fresh grass stirs something in them. I suspect it’s not unlike the thing that stirs in me when my wife Penny drops a batch of sourdough donuts into a pot of hot lard.
I like moving cows because I like cows, and therefore I like doing what I know is best for the cows. And I like moving cows because I like moving, and therefore I like walking back and forth across our pasture, the dew wet tips of grass grazing my shins, my feet sloshing in my boots. I need new boots something fierce; my current pair is full of holes, they’re like ships taking on water, destined for the river bottom. But of course they’ve been this way for two summers now and I’m doing just fine, which makes me wonder: Maybe I don’t need new boots, after all.
I like moving cows because it forces me to pay attention: good grazing practices demand a particular focus, because the pasture is always changing, in accordance with the season, the weather, the length of day, and unseen forces that I am unlikely to ever fully understand. In June, the grass grows so furiously we cannot keep up with it; it is an ocean of grass, a tsunami of forage, and it is almost impossible to imagine that it will ever end. We think this will be the year we graze into November! But by August it is already waning, and we ration the pasture carefully, hoping for warm September rains to push along the season’s final growth. We think maybe we can keep the cows on grass until the middle of October. To move cows is to, in some small way, become part of the story written by the forces of nature. I can’t say why, but any time I have the opportunity to become part of this story, I am comforted.
I like moving cows because I like the way cows smell and I can smell them while I’m moving them. If you don’t like the way cows smell – and I’m not talking about their feces or urine (these are good smells, too, but are perhaps acquired tastes), but rather the simple, warm, contented bovine essence of them – you’ve either got nose problems or there’s something more drastically wrong with you. The smell of cow in the morning is like the first flames of a fire on a cold winter’s day, and I sometimes think that even if I didn’t covet butter and cream and milk and meat, I’d keep a cow around just so I could smell the thing.
I like moving cows because there has yet to be anything wrong in my life that can’t at least temporarily be fixed by moving cows. This means that either my life is so good that nothing has yet gone wrong enough that moving cows can’t make me feel better, or that moving cows is so powerful that it can overcome even those things that are terribly wrong.
Which is it? I think it probably doesn’t matter.
First published April 2015