“Moo”-ville

When I came to Seattle in 1983, I quickly learned that city people knew almost nothing about farm life. Whenever I mentioned that I grew up on a dairy farm, eyes rolled and I’d be treated to jokes about “hicks” and “farmers’ daughters” or the patronizing tones of “how nice, that must have been fun!”

To which my reply was always: “Not really, it was a hell of a lot of hard work. Not like sitting on your ass in an office”…which is a good way to end a conversation. After a while, I just stopped mentioning the dairy farm and told people I was from Pierce County. Then I was treated to another session of eye-rolling and “aroma of Tacoma” jokes. After a few years, I started telling folks “I’m from here.” Nowadays I don’t have to tell anyone where I’m from, they just assume I grew up here. Which has somehow made me indignant. Now I vehemently announce: “From Seattle? Not on your life! I was born on a dairy farm in rural Pierce County, goddammit!”

You’ll have to excuse the cussin’–it comes with the territory.

As a single, unattached woman in her 30s, I’ve recently had a lot of opportunities to do the “where are you from?” conversation, especially with men. Invariably, when I say “I grew up on a dairy farm,” they almost immediately smile and try to make a mooing sound of some kind. At first I thought they were strangling or having a heart attack, but then I realized I had discovered some kind of reflexive spot in the urban male’s brain: mention cows and they moo…or try to.

The problem with this reaction is that men can’t moo worth a shit–it takes a woman to know how to moo. Cows are female, after all. The closest a man can get is to sound like he’s barfing up his lunch. Rural men, on the other hand, can do a fairly good imitation of a bull’s bellow (it’s an art, believe me). But urban men have never heard the wide range and variety of the bovine voice, much less the difference between a cow’s commandments and a bull’s outright bragging.

Which led me to think about where cows fit in the vocal range of the farm animal choir. Starting at the top, you have chicken sopranos, equine mezzo-sopranos, goats covering the alto range, and cows down among the ranks of contraltos. On the male side of the choir, you’ll find pig falsettos, stallion tenors, ram baritones, and bulls holding up the bass line, with the occasional border collie adding fullness to the middle range. And just like in many human choirs, the females outnumber the males.

There’s a reason for that. On the farm, female animals are both easier to work with and more productive. You see, female animals know how to communicate with you; they know how to listen and respond. Male animals, on the other hand, think they own the world and they just do whatever they want in spite of you. Feel free to attribute that statement to my gender bias as a woman, to reverse sexism, to the fact that I’m a hick, whatever. But it’s true.

Also, female animals are more productive, for two reasons: they get pregnant and have babies, and they give milk. Feel free to attribute this statement to my gender bias, etc., etc. It also happens to be true.

Which brings me to the real difference between female calves and male calves. (I’m not talking about legs! You city folks are mighty dim: “calves” are bovine babies, fer Chrissakes.) On every dairy farm, female or “heifer” calves are highly prized, because they grow up to be productive members of the herd; they have more calves and make lots of milk. Male or “bull” calves, on the other hand, are sent off to be sold for veal–although occasionally we keep one (you know, just to keep the babies coming). Sound inhumane? Of course it is–but just keep that in mind the next time you’re dining on veal in an expensive restaurant. You can take a bite and think to yourself: “Maybe Sam knew his mama!”

I don’t eat veal. I’ve taken care of too many calves, both male and female, and I know how badly veal calves are treated (even if they are arrogant, head-butting males): kept in cramped pens where they can’t turn around and often can’t lay down, fed only fatty liquids and antibiotics which give them the runs, forced to lay in their own shit, and then slaughtered when they’re only a few weeks old. Veal is by far the most inhumane product of modern dairy farming.

Yet not all dairy bull calves go to veal farms. Some go to beef ranches or feed lots, are neutered, and become steers raised for beef. Feed lots are only slightly better than veal farms, in that the steers get to live a little longer and may actually see some sunshine once in a while. As you eat that hamburger, you can think to yourself: “Maybe Sam knew his mama!”

I probably did. Just don’t moo when I tell you I grew up on dairy farm. Please. I’ll be thinking to myself: “My God! He’s barfing up that veal dinner!”