by Suzanne Lupien of Norwich, VT
May I take a few minutes to tell you about Nell?
My dear old Jersey cow – 19 years old – I had to put down a few weeks ago. She suddenly went downhill, having trouble swallowing, lost condition very rapidly, and there was nothing the vet could do. Never one to prolong an animal’s suffering to satisfy my own sentiment; I called Chet early one morning. Chet lives just up the hill from here and slaughters for me – the kindest, gentlest man on earth. And what a craftsman! He had a bunch of pigs to do for someone an hour away, but said he’d come at 10 a.m. Then I called Ellis, who had an excavating job up the road 10 miles. He said he’d be here at noon and we would bury her in the middle of the garden.
What a hard day to have to say goodbye to that gem of a Jersey I’d milked for 12 years, enjoying her marvelous personality as well as her lovely creamy yellow milk. I hand-milk my six or eight cows, and have come to value the time spent by their sides on the milk stool. Especially Nell! Her personality was so exuberant and fun, and so easy to read!
Twelve years ago this Thanksgiving I found her at the remote homestead of an old friend. She had been rescued by a logger, who had discovered her tossed out after a near-fatal accident falling on a moving gutter-cleaner, which had almost skinned her alive. By the time I laid eyes on her she was more or less healed over, but you could still see that she’d been torn open from stem to stern and still had infected patches on her back legs, rump and cheek. Plus she was just about starved. She was tiny – a more forlorn creature I hope never to behold! My homesteader friend was happy to give her to me, so I hired Wynn and his stock trailer and I rugged her and we made it all the way home just before the first major storm of the year.
My heart ached for Nell because she was so sad, so completely dejected. Not a glimmer of hope in her wounded and emaciated little body, head hanging down, stumbling along as I coaxed her into a stanchion in my simple old-style barn. I gave her the best I had and soothed her in every way, hoping more than anything to cheer her. She was half the size of my other cows but still managed to produce 1 ½ gallons of milk every morning even in her frightfully impoverished state. I began to make camembert every morning with her milk – 1 ½ gallons of milk makes two camembert’s, so I was able to combine mastering that particular cheese method with using all her milk.
Dr. McGrew came to check her out and after examining her asked me why I’d bothered. Her ovaries were completely shriveled to nothing and he said she’d never calve again. Six years old? He was incredulous. He’d never seen such a tiny Jersey cow. When he left I was trying to decide whether I was stupid for taking home this little waif of a cow. We called her Nell after the Dickens character. Try as I might I couldn’t get her to lift her head and just know that I loved her and things would be all right. She loved the good green hay and the comfy surroundings. And fortunately the other cows didn’t push her around, so daytimes out in the winter barnyard were comfortable for her.
It must have taken her 6 months to a year before it dawned on her that this farm was her home and that from now on she would be treated well. About a year and a half later, when Dr. McGrew came around for another small matter, she was 3 inches taller, a lot fatter, with a beautiful heifer calf by her side. “That’s not the little rescue cow is it?” Not only was she as fit as a fat fiddle, she was HAPPY, and she never stopped expressing her enjoyment of and gratitude for all the good that came her way. Good hay! Apples and pumpkins! Rearing her own calf! Wonderful brushings! Fields and woods! Plus she had the cutest Jersey face and everyone loved her.
Open House potluck? She’d hone right in on the bowl of corn chips and suck them down before you could think of intercepting. Bread making in the outdoor oven? She knew when it was Friday and she’d sashay over to the bread table and inhale 20 lb. of bread dough and any warm loaves of bread stacked in baskets for the Farmers Market. Opportunities and ideas sprang up in her mind as fast as dandelions in a field.
You know how a cow behaves in spring finding herself in a lush green field for the first time? Twirling and jumping? She was the Ginger Rogers of the Fields. And when she was younger she didn’t limit her performances to that initial turnout day – she did it anytime. It was impossible not to notice her exuberance, her glee: always coming when I called her, always ready for anything.
Teaching Home Dairying classes at the farm – who wanted to be the cow to lead to the village and back to teach cow handling skills? Nell. And who wanted to be the cow everyone learned to hand milk? Nell, of course. Occasionally, though, if I had an uppity student I’d set them down with their pail next to Hazel. Before long they’d be on their behind in the gutter and hopefully learn their lesson – arrogance has no place on a farm or anywhere else.
Nell was extremely cooperative, she clearly enjoyed everything. But she was not meek. One time she calved up in the rockiest corner of the pasture, and Reagen the Bassett came up to see what the fuss was all about. She made the mistake of getting between mother and daughter and I suddenly witnessed Nell the Terror. Her complete distrust of dogs became apparent as she pounded Reagen into a rock with her head, then scrabbled her over with her front hooves and pounded her again. I never knew a cow would do such a thing! I thought Reagen was a goner as she yelped and hobbled home, but when I called her owners that evening they said she was OK – just a bit sore. Needless to say, she never came near Nell again.
Sugaring season, and who was the first cow to master sliding the lid off a bucket and tanking the contents? You guessed it. Gate left open? Who was the first volunteer to lead the herd on a frolic up the wood road and back? Nell again? Hen house door left open? Who figured out that the door was wide enough to accommodate a cow and that layer pellets were delicious? Nelly Nell. Loitering next to the pig yard one fine day when a substandard Stilton cheese was hurled in the general direction of the pig trough but rolled under the electric wire, Nell didn’t miss a beat; she pounced on the cheese and noshed the whole thing! Pumpkins, French bread, a wagonload of broccoli – fine! Yes! She knew it was all for her!
She stood like a statue through every milking, gave the yellowest milk ever. She made her way down the path of life with so much pep in her step that she would make me laugh. She was there for me when I felt sad. Always Nell; the funniest, happiest cow that ever lived.
Nell was a very physical cow, even a sensual one. She adored being milked and any other form of physical connection. She loved it when I would rub her big bulging eye sockets or just hold them and no rubbing. From under her chin down to her neck was another favorite spot, and once you started she insisted you go on for several minutes. Why stop? She would ask. She returned the favor by rubbing her head very hard up and down my side, kind of pounding her head into my thigh as she went. Often somewhat bruised, I always endured it as long as possible for her.
On Bread Day I kept her away from the oven for obvious reasons, but during our little exchanges of pleasantries or hay or whatnot, she would always lick and chew all the flour and dough off my hands, arms, jeans, and then go back to my hand and lightly chomp on the meaty part of the back of my hand over and over. That made her very happy. There are no words to describe how happy she was with any form of treat or physical affection. She just knew she was The Queen. After milking, when she would open her eyes again and snap out of her semi-ecstasy, I would give her tail bone a good scratch, which would inevitably set her off in prolonged rapture, which led her to stretch out her neck, raise her head as high as she could, and give the impression she was talking most excitedly, moving her lips (do cows have lips?), bobbing her head up and down, swinging from side to side.
Another thing she loved was being scratched up between her udder and leg. She would lift her leg up high and hold that pose for a long time. As soon as that foot hit the floor, the other would go up, expecting the other side to be thoroughly scratched too.
I thanked her every day for her milk as I do all the cows, but I thanked her for her friendship too. We were a team; never a complaint, never any illness or udder trouble or anything; just one peculiar incident out in the pasture when she apparently burped up her cud at the same time as sneezing? Laughing? Mooing? I don’t know, but anyway she’d gotten her cud up into her nasal passages and could barely breathe. Dave Webster, my vet at the time, came to see her and said all he could do was give her a steroid. So we did that.
I’ve made a lot of cheese and, in the beginning when I farmed in Cornish, N.H.; I like to indicate whose milk went into the cheese in addition to writing down the age of the cheese, what sort of cheese, etc., for the many appreciative black market customers there. Nell, the consummate poster cow, posed for a variety of artwork – for a camembert label, for pottery decorations, for the maple syrup bottle labels, for a woodcut on a postcard for the farm. In our negotiations for her royalty payments, we simply settled on my treating her as Royalty forever and always.
This last summer I turned her out as a dry cow in the high field across the road with the heifers and her son Nelson, the two-year-old bull. Soon I was vaguely aware that she was trying to talk him into sucking on her again. About a month later I figured she had succeeded as her bag was indeed full and he had a kind of greasy-looking nose. I realized she had worked herself back up into full production. So I brought her back home and milked her every day until her star moved and she had to go.
Fourteen years of collaboration seems like a long while in a world where most cows are dead by age 5, but it’s over way to soon. Thanksgiving morning just won’t be the same when I carry out the baskets of chopped carrots, beets, cabbage and apples for their special meal and take down one of the choicest bales set aside in the hay mow for holiday meals. Nell loved it. They all love it, but Nell appreciated it. She always seemed to say thank you back.
Goodbye, dear Nell. Thanks for being the best four-legged friend I’ve ever had! I’ve got three lovely Jerseys to milk still, but it will never be the same without you.