A fairly good life, for a cow

January 21, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- A damp still evening, raw, the air above ground just above the ice point but no thawing underfoot. I walk westward across a snowy field, toward the woods, toward a dull gray sky where the sunset ought to be.

Most of the field is covered with deep and unbroken snow, but between the gate and the woods a tractor has passed, plowing a narrow path. In the woods as I approach something stirs in the failing light. Huge shadowy wings open. They are black above but silvery beneath, almost the color of the lifeless sky. The creature, a buzzard, flaps heavily away.

The old cow lies in the woods where we pushed her, just beyond the break in the fence. Another buzzard gets up from the carcass and several small birds scatter. She has been dead for several days now, but the cold weather is slowing her decomposition. Until I get within a few feet there's hardly any smell. But then it's quite sickening.

She was an old cow and she had died quietly during a snowy night, in the midst of the herd packed into the big open shed. We found her in the morning. I wasn't surprised; I'd known she was failing, and had been waiting for better weather to load her up and take her to the weekly livestock auction in Churchville. But I waited too long.

She might have brought a couple of hundred dollars. Live farm animals, even if they're ill or injured, have some market value. So do dead ones, but it isn't much, and it no longer pays for their removal.

Years ago, if you had a dead horse or cow you could call the local rendering plant, and they'd come and haul it away for no charge. There was leather to be made from the hide, and bonemeal and pet food and other useful byproducts from the rest. It was not a pretty job, driving that stinking truck with its drop-down ramp and electric winch, and the people who did it weren't beautiful either. But it provided an important service.

Some of that's changed with the times. The only rendering plant I know now is in Virginia. They'll still come when called, but they charge for it. The current fee per carcass is $100. I know because a week before the cow died we had to euthanize a horse.

Death by needle

Euthanasia is what the veterinarians call it. They use a hypodermic needle and the expensive word, and it works very effectively. We used to do it regularly without professional help, and called it ''putting down'' an animal. A bullet from a small-caliber handgun into the forehead produces instant oblivion. It is less scientific but probably no less merciful than death by needle.

Anyway, except for the charge, the process of removing a large-animal carcass today isn't very different from that of years past. The truck, the winch, the melancholy driver, and of course the stench -- these haven't changed much at all.

But the storm altered the equation. With the roads so snowy, I knew it might be days before we could get the renderer's truck back for the cow, and it didn't seem wise to wait. So with the help of a neighbor and his big four-wheel-drive tractor, we plowed a path across the fields and took her to the woods.

She was a big black cow with a white face, what we call a baldy, half black Angus and half white-faced Hereford. I know she was born on our farm, but I don't know too much about her early life, or even exactly how old she was. My cow records go back only to 1988, when I took over the herd from my father.

Since then she'd had eight calves, one each year, four bulls and four heifers. I kept two of her daughters as brood cows. She'd had no illnesses until the last one. I suppose you could say she had a fairly good life, for a cow. Certainly she was spared those uncomfortable and perhaps frightening last rides, first to the auction and then to the slaughterhouse. She died quietly at home, among cows she'd spent her life with, in the shed where she probably had been born.

Now, in the woods, the buzzards and coons and foxes will eventually tear her apart, and the slow burn of natural decay will break down her remains. I'll cover her soon with a load of manure and some brush. By June young shoots of poplar and ash will be springing up around and through her; by fall it'll be hard to find many bones.

Leaving the woods in the last of the light, I pause and look back. Nothing moves. The buzzards are long gone and the shapeless black and white thing that was a cow is no longer visible, dissolving into the dusk where the tree trunks merge into the snow. The wind must have turned, because from far away I can hear traffic on the interstate highway. A train whistle sounds from somewhere near Aberdeen. Over the cold ground I make my way home.

8,

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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