Yesterday, we sent five cows to the cattle market in Tumut
Two of them had been with us so long they had names, 'Old Brown Cow', and 'Cassie.' Old Brown Cow was sixteen. She came from a neighbour's property, so had lived in the Valley all her life. Cassie came from a Yass property with her mother when she was a 'calf at foot.' They were the matriarchs of the herd, huge, powerful beasts, both gentle and assertive. Between them, they'd raised twenty five calves, and as aunties and grandmothers had helped look after countless more. They taught the younger cattle how to do things like walk through gates without freaking out, and one or other of them would usually take the lead when it was time for the herd to move. Many experiences of being yarded for drenching, and vaccinations, and weaning, and all the rest of it, had taught them to be stoic in the face of discomfort and inconvenience. They would know it would soon be over and they'd be back in the paddock, and they would have a calming effect on other stressed out cattle.
Cassie lost her calf last year. Only two days old, I found it in the top paddock, a carcass without a head. A wild dog had killed it. I knew something had happened because I saw Cassie standing almost without moving for hours on end, quite alone, and I went to investigate. She stood a few feet away as I approached the calf, her head bowed, staring at it, moaning softly with each breath. I talked to her, I admit. I told her how sorry I was, and how I wished I had been there to help. I wanted badly to stroke her, but tame though she was, she'd never quite let me get close enough to touch her in the paddock. She listened though. For several days, she stayed up there by herself, watching over the calf's body, then she went back to the herd.
We start the job early. My little granddaughter is excited to be helping. I find her a sturdy stick, which she wields very effectively, facing down a couple of cows who don't want to go up to the gate, until they give up and turn in with the others. The new ute purrs and bumps along smoothly and satisfactorily, its first test in the paddock. The sun is warm, and hundreds of tiny butterflies rise out of the grass around my feet. The river glistens. This is the best part of the day.
The cattle grunt and complain, but they go into the yard easily. Then we have to draft off the cows which are going to market into the small yard next to the loading ramp. Old Brown Cow goes first, resigned and uncomplaining, she expects she'll just have to squeeze through the crush as usual, have her jab and then back out to the paddock. She has a calf, which stays with the rest of the herd, but she is unconcerned at first.
Cassie lumbers through after her, followed by two young barren cows. Fat as butter and pretty as pictures, but no udders at all. For some reason they have never had calves, so they are of no use. Finally, the young cow who could not push her calf out last Spring. We had to call the vet from Tumut, who came out in the middle of his surgery on a Saturday morning and did a Caesarean on her. She recovered, but the vet told us she would never have another calf.
When the truck comes in the late afternoon, they have all been standing together for a long time, swishing at flies, leaning into the shade. Old Brown Cow is agitated now that her calf has gone back with the rest of the herd into the paddock, without her. She paces the fence and calls to it. The truck driver easily gets them up the ramp and they clatter onto the truck.. We stand for a while yarning to him and a neighbour. The cows stare through the slats of the truck. Then they're gone, down the road into the quiet evening.
I have recourse to many useful thoughts as we tidy up, indeed, I've been calling on them all day. The cows have had a good life on our property. The end will be swift and humane, (bit hazy on this last bit). The business provides a significant part of our income. We are growing food for peoples' tables.
But on these days, it doesn't suit to have a cattle business, and a conscience, both.