RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Tale of Hay

On December 28, my husband and I moved three of our last six large bales into the paddocks where the cows eat. The bales had to last three weeks. If they last three weeks, and if the next bales last three weeks, that'll be mid-February. Every year, in mid-February, we sell our bull, which means one less mouth to feed. Also, by mid-February, the grass might be recovered enough to move the cows back to the good pastures. That is, if there's rain and it stays warm.

The cows watched us impatiently. They absolutely depend on us, but they're accustomed to being served on time. As my husband drove the tractor back and forth on the paddock side of the fence, the cows followed us on their side of the fence.

Fresh hay smells wonderful, even to a human. Sweet, and fresh, sunny -- it must smell like heaven to cows. They were hungry. They had been out of hay for a day, and had to nibble at the frostbitten pasture. But my husband was eight days into one of those three-week viruses, so we waited.

Now we've moved our hay, and we've put the big round bale protectors -- called hay rings -- around the bales so the cows can't ruin it by standing on it and pooping in it. Two bales fell apart as we were moving them, and some of the hay has fallen outside the hay rings. I picked it up, clump by clump, and pitched it back in. Each clump weighs about a pound, and I wondered how many mouthfuls I saved. A day's worth for a cow? That'd be great. A whole cow's day's worth. I picked up each clump, but stopped when I found myself picking up individual strands of grass.

My mind calculated over and over how long the hay can last. If we run out, what do we do? Which cow, in other words, do we get rid of? The young, unproven ones? Or their mothers? The mothers are the most valuable, the blue-bloods of the place. And they are in fabulous shape. The vet checked them a couple of weeks ago, said he sure wouldn't sell them. Their teeth are good. But the babies, of course, have the potential of lasting longer. Still, for every cow we sell, we save hay for the others. One cow gone, a day's worth of hay for another.

309, I decide, would be the first to go. She's the biggest, and I've watched her swing her big head to push the others away from food. My husband hates her, blames her for going through fences, and he's probably right. So, it's 309. And 502 would be next, in my opinion. Our most valuable cow, at least on paper, her babies aren't so special. And her feet make a cracking sound when she walks. I hate that. So, 309 and 502. But that would mean we'd lose two guaranteed, absolutely simple births next year, because both those mothers are reliable. I try to imagine the herd without 309, a tall, red cow, and 502, a bony, black one, and I miss them already.

I can call my neighbor and order more hay. I've done that once, and his price was reasonable, but when I called him again he was running out, too. All he has is two-year-old hay, and that at top price. I don't blame him. He's got bills to pay, and he needs to maximize when he can, but I'll wait and see. Still, if there's a blizzard? Then what? Bad news, but good news, too. We'd get moisture.

I decide to open up the woods--our worst pasture--as sort of a diversionary tactic. I read that if cows have a new place to graze, even if it's bad, they'll graze it. So maybe I can save a day or two by letting them into the woods. It's warm enough for them to wander so far from their shelter, and if it turns cold they can get in the cedar grove at the pasture's edge.

So I drag the red water tank into the woods. And I drag hoses into the woods and hook them up. As soon as the frost melts, I run the hose.

But the cows are deep into the hay now. The fragrance wafts across the fields. Even though I'm a couple hundred yards away, I can smell its sweetness. They won't leave it today.

The next day, however, I time it right. As soon as they finish their morning corn, I walk through the gate into the woods and, predictably, they follow me. Then I pause at the red water tank, and watch them, hoping they'll get interested in the new place. There's grass underneath the leaves, I think, hoping the ESP reaches them. Eventually, 309 takes a nibble, and the rest follow suit.

So that's a day of hay saved for all of them.

Now, every day, I try to think of another strategy. I feed more corn, then, when I'm at the feed store, I order a new mineral block, thinking that if they eat a lot of mineral, and drink a lot of water, they'll be fuller. The next day, I haul the mineral block out, dump it in the lot, and sure enough, they go to it. That's a day or two saved, I hope.

Usually, our hay lasts well into March, and we end the year with a bale or two in reserve, but it's been dry, as you know. Still, the reason I've written this column is not to tell you my worries, Dear Reader. Truthfully, my life is secure. I have plenty of food -- a freezer full, and a pantry full. And selling a cow, even a cow that produces well, isn't a tragedy. Cows aren't people.

I've written this column because for some reason humans today empathize with animals more than with humans. Kill a woman, shoot a cop -- that's grist for the TV drama mill. But don't hurt an animal.

I've written this column because maybe by reading about cows, we'll start to see implications for ourselves. We're all taking food for granted. We have to look back to the 1930s to read about real starvation in this country. Not that we don't have starvation here today. Just that we don't read about it.

So this column is about cows, and about food. We mustn't take food for granted. We must learn the wheres, whens, hows, whos and whats about our food supply. We must learn about it, think about where it comes from, and what it means.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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