Letter from Birdland: Getting up close and personal with cows

Letter from Birdland: Getting up close and personal with cows

In Birdland, the calendar says spring is coming soon, and on a sunny day like today, 30 degrees can seem almost balmy.

But I'm writing from campus today because this weekend is the Engineering Open House and other open houses and tours. The University of Illinois is alive with kids — from grade school on up, walking in groups between exhibits.

I find myself crossing an unfamiliar quad. I rarely go south of the Undergraduate Library. In fact, today, I head to the library to return a book. But then I remember that my student will be at the cow-milking exhibit. Something in the sparkle of the morning makes me convince myself I really do have time to get over there to see the milking booth, and I turn south and head for the stock pavilion.

The pavilion is big and open. When I arrived, my eye caught a rope flying through the air. Some students were throwing lariats for a group of middle-schoolers: big, thick loops of rope flying through the air and landing in the wood chips on the floor, raising dust, just like in an old western.

I make sense of the flying ropes and let my eyes acclimate to the indoor light. At the far end is a pen with two cows, one a light brown and one black and white. Beyond that are a couple of chutes, each holding a cow.

I see my student explaining something to a group of kids. He sees me and comes over to say hello. I tell him I want to try the milking, and he leads me over to the brown cow.

I ask him if she is a Brown Swiss, since I know that's the kind of milk cow he has at home. But no, she is a Jersey. He explains the difference. A Brown Swiss would be taller, more sturdy. He kneels down and shows me the ankle bones in this cow, which he describes as "delicate."

They look pretty sturdy to me, but maybe they are dainty for a cow. A young woman sits next to the cow, and I tell her I want to try milking. She shows me how to touch the cow gently on the flank so the cow knows I am there. Then she pantomimes what I'm supposed to do: close my fingers around her teat one at a time.

I watch, but then when it is my turn to try, I mess up. Nothing comes out, and I have to ask her to show me again. She patiently explains, showing me with her fingers a few more times. It is a little like playing down the scale on a clarinet. The teat is squishy, and the size and shape of my finger, but painted blue.

I try again, and this time I get it right and a thin stream of milk shoots down into the wood chips beneath the cow. I am a tiny bit disappointed that the milk doesn't go into a bucket. I was hoping to get a taste, but I suppose that would be against all sorts of health codes.

I thank the cow and take her picture. She looks at me impassively, her deep brown eyes unblinking. She stands there patiently as strangers try their hand at milking.

I walk over to the other cow, the Holstein, and see that she has a round porthole cut in her side. Some children are donning long, plastic blue gloves and sticking their hands into the hole in the cow's side to feel what's in her stomach. Make that one of her stomachs. I gather that she has several.

I get in line, and when it's my turn, I stand on the step stool and peek in but decline to reach inside. I'd rather just look, I tell the young woman who is minding this cow, making sure everyone is safe and careful with her. I peek in and see what looks like grass clippings, sort of damp and greenish, but then suddenly it heaves, as if the cow has burped or clenched her stomach. A young woman explains that this particular stomach is a fermenting stomach, and her muscles contract to churn and mix the mixture, so it can ferment evenly.

I thank the cow, but this one seems a bit more impatient. And why not? If you had a window in your stomach, would you like strangers sticking their hands in? I want a picture of her, too, but she has turned her head away. I wait while she gazes over her right shoulder, and then she turns back and I thank her and she goes back to chewing her cud.

Milk in beauty; chew in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She dreams of dairy goats and believes that meeting cows today will help her along on that dream. You can read more of her writing at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com.