How it all began
A couple of months after I met my husband, he needed to pull out a fence on the farm. He decided I would help him. He stuck me in an antique 6 tonne digger and there I sat for a whole blissful day watching him wrap a chain around the post so I could pull it out before rumbling onto the next one. I was in my element. It definitely contributed to my decision to make my life with him on the land. I (incorrectly) presumed this was a snapshot of what my life would be like; outside, working, alongside him, shoulder to shoulder.
I feel alive outdoors, in all weather. There’s nothing like coming in from a cold wet day to a roaring fire and a hot dinner, your soul invigorated.
Being inducted into the herd
Fast forward a few years and my father in law decided that I should be inducted into farming properly and rear some calves. He took me to the local sale yard to learn “how things are done” and I enthusiastically tagged along with our nine month old on my hip. I am shown around the pens, introduced to all his mates and listen in on the farmer gossip. Sitting there watching the action at the end with all the lots of animals coming and going I felt happy to be included.
After this my husband sources 6 wee calves from a local dairy farmer, Hereford (beef) and Fresian (dairy) cross.
I am to get up before everyone else in the house to feed the calves:
In the dark I warm the water, mix up the powder, slosh across the yard like a milkmaid with my buckets and watch them feeding. Then I must clean down and steralise everything thoroughly; as with human babies, calves are very susceptible to bugs. After I have seen to my calves I shower and wake the house, getting everyone up, dressed and fed and making lunches before bundling everyone in the car to get to school.
The whole shebang is repeated every evening around dinner time with an additional lunchtime visit to check on water and an offering of meal.
Everyother day I must clean and sanitise the shed as a scouring (green or yellow diarrhea which squirts out with such force it makes the shed and anything standing within 3 meters look like a Jackson Pollock painting) calf can pass it on at lightning speed and if not treated equally as quickly can be lossed to it.
A Lot of poo
This calf rearing twilight world goes on for 6 weeks and that first September it seemed to rain non-stop. 6 weeks of trudging, slipping and sliding through mud mixed with cow shit of a surprisingly wide variety of colors and textures. Some thick and lumpy while other varietals were smooth and running, like it had been put through a blender. Eternally smeared in shit stinking mud, I stumble about, much like at Glastonbury 2005, without the sex, drugs n rock n roll.
To add to the meale of madness I am still breast feeding our daughter and seem to be solely responsible for a 5 and 7 year old as well as meeting my husband’s needs and keeping ‘house’.
I am wrecked. “This is farming” I tell myself, “I am tough; I put myself through a full time honors degree by waitressing 30hrs a week and still had time to party. I can do this”.
My husband leaves it all to me, “this is fine” I tell myself, “it’s my responsibility”, “I need to prove myself”. He interestingly doesn’t seem to offer to do anything else, no dinners cooked, no school runs run, no lunches packed, no clothes washed. Hmmmmm I think quietly to myself.
A woman’s work
At this point in my story I need to introduce the real farming women, who if they are here, will be chuckling at my ineptitude “6 calves in 6 weeks” they will be thinking “try 200 over 3 months”
And here’s the thing, it took me a while to realise this, but the reason my father in law got me to start rearing cattle is not so I could be a ‘farmer’ in my own right, but to fulfill the role of a farmer’s wife. You see, calf rearing is traditionally the “wifes’ job.
I’m part of a facebook page ‘Farming mums’. It’s a supportive group of 15 thousand women working in farming in Aotearoa. Every year I am horrified at what I witness at calving time. A ream of desperate posts asking for advice on what to do with preschool children, how to get kids to school, how to feed husbands/farm workers/children as well as managing all the calves.
They laugh together at the state of the house, the washing pile, the mud. Share the guilt at the neglect of the children, the exhaustion, the anger, the resentment. Advice on feeding regimes, hacks and techniques, equipment and clothing, rules and regulations, mental health, marriage guidance, employment law and generally how to get through it all, sane.
I sit and go through hundreds of helpful responses, blown away: one woman hires a caravan and puts it next to the shed and puts her children inside with food and a TV so she can parent and work tandemly. Another posts a picture of a table neatly piled high with portioned out meals in plastic containers. She has literally spent a whole week cooking, portioning out and freezing hundreds of meals in preparation for the armageddon she is about to step into.
I read the responses dumbfounded. These women accept what’s been handed to them, it’s taken as a given that this is their lot and they are all rallying round offering their bits of advice to get each other through until next year. I have no idea how long these women’s days are or how much they are getting paid.
Women are the fucking back bone of farming.
Every year 4.6million calves are born in NZ in the dairy industry. 30% of these are replacement stock. This means they will go on to become dairy cows. 30% are crossed with beef breeds in the hope that they all find a place in the beef industry. 40% are ‘bobby’ calves. These calves are taken to slaughter at around 5 days old. They are used for veal and other processed meat products.
This is shocking to many people outside of farming who don’t like to think about what’s gone into producing the milk they pour on their cornflakes. Yes it is shocking. I think it’s awful, for everyone involved
Perhaps we need to be brave and take responsibility for the part we (consumers) play. Instead of vilifying the people slogging their guts out within a system that they did not construct. These women are not cruel, evil, animal haters as portrayed by campaigners. Of course as with anything, people contribute a variety of standards and invariably some do let the side down. However my facebook feed is filled with women desperately trying to find homes for calves due on the bobby truck who have made a mark on these farmers.
“Sweet day old calf destined for the bobby truck free to a good home, I’d take him myself but I’m not allowed any more pets” one woman begs as she shares a picture of a beautiful Jersey with big brown eyes. These farmers don’t mistreat animals and then gleefully throw them onto the truck. They do what is required by the currant system to produce the milk demanded for
‘the market’. Looking away as the door is closed and pushing down the churning feeling in their guts. Taking the hit for us, so we can pop that container of milk in our trolley without the demoralisation and mud and shit and death tainting any part of it.
I read a campaign recently that said behind every carton of milk is a dead calf. Which is true. But who is responsible for this? Who can we shift the blame onto? What would happen if we started challenging these systems we have created? These big unwieldy, uncontrollable machines that started out manageable but have ballooned under the weight of capitalism and existential growth. Lets stop vilifying the people trying to make a living inside them and start facing up to the part that each of us play to see if we can stop feeding these monstrous systems that have seemed to take on a life of their own and begin to dismantle them, replacing them with something we can all face with a cleaner conscience. I don’t know what that is yet but I reckon there’s enough of us now who’d like to find out.