Friday, February 16, 2007

For Lactose-Loving Eyes Only

I spent yesterday afternoon in the company of a bevy of long-lash'd ladies--a dream come true for bovinatics. These beautiful dairy queens, a Holstein-Friesian breed, were an olfactory repreive after Wednesday's pig trip. Ryan, Porky's son and the cow's keeper, leases the land from his family and has built up his own herd over the past decade. He milks twice a day, at dawn and about half past-three. It takes about ten minutes per cow, each of the 200 or so rendering about 20 liters a day. The machines taking in the milk ("cups") make a muted grumble, with the soothing, mechanised pulse of an airplane cabin circulating air. The dairy, although old-fashioned, is maticulously clean. Well, there is cow shit everywhere. But it smells...nice. Grassy and hot.

The milk is pumped through pipes through a cooler to a tank, where it is collected every two days. At every pick-up, the milk is graded for quality and nutrition content. Ryan produces the reciept with pride: because of the care he takes in selecting breeding, as well as the health and hygine of his "girls," the numbers are high and low in all the right places, well better than the national average.
He also shows me a poster with the 40-odd bulls available as breeding studs up in Hamilton. "This is the Penthouse of bulls," he explains. They do look hunky. Unlike Playmates, however, their semen stats are listed alongside: protein counts, fertility levels...not sexy, but necessary to find the right donor for your herd. Ryan spends about $23 a shot for sperm, keeping about a quarter of the calves born (about 45 per year). The females are kept, the males sold once weaned, at about 12 weeks. It's a lot of math, and I hear helping 200 multi-ton women succesfully go through labor is no walk in the park, either.

As the cows mill around, lining up to milk, Ryan hi-hos and hi-yahs them into place with a firm gentleness that's echoed in the manner of confidence and affection he maintains as he speaks about each cow. He points out his favorite. She's mostly black, with a chill demenor. She moseys to the end of the milking chamber with a lazy grace that makes me think of...well, a cow. It's pleasant to watch, like a Golden Retreiver settling into her favorite worn spot on the floor. When Ryan, up to his elbows in plastic gloves and shit-covered sleeve guards, moves quickly to spray sanitizer on her udders and slip the cups on to begin milking, she barely flicks her tail. Even so, I steer clear. Cows can seem docile to the point of dumb, but they aren't stupid: the previous day, when I'd tried putting on the cups, the relationship wasn't as good. I was nervous, they were nervous, and at about five feet above my head was a cow-butt, ready to fountain out digested grass. After one go, I gave the reins back to Ryan.

These days in New Zealand, Ryan thinks it's a good time to get into dairy farming. There's constant challenge in it, and the technology, he figures, has never been better. He talks about the math and business of the weather, the play of proper rotation and soil care in feeding his herd, how he can surf twice a day if he'd like and still make a mean living, and overall, the freedom a dairy farmer has as their own boss on a day-to-day basis. Granted, the large grain of salt in the room is the intensity of a cow's udder bursting with milk twice a day, starting at dawn, and your responsibility to it. Also, the dairy industry is paid in American dollars and with the NZ dollar strong against it, transport costs up and large corporations buying up most of the milk at their prices, the margin for profit isn't what it used to be. However, if you're looking for a life that puts you at the base of a volcanic mountain, grants you coastal access to a sweeping horizon of sea, and lets you hang out with sweet ladies on a daily basis, then it's heavenly. Standing at the edge of his land, the sun setting golden and gorgeous on the Tasman Sea, Ryan stops at a paddock gate to wax poetic. "Every day I wake up and feel this good," he says.

And it's true. I smell weird and there's cow crap on my big rubber boots, but my heart is exploding at how gorgeous everything is. The air tastes like salt and the land lays in giant folds of velveteen grass, black sand creeping up from the seashore. A few minutes later, we head back to the house for red wine with his partner Meaghan and my friends Hayley and Co. "You know, though, I'd really like to have a vineyard," Ryan says, "Have your wine drunk all over the world..." I can't help but laugh. I guess the grass IS always greener.