I’ve spent the last week perfecting the skill of drafting out cows showing signs of oestrus.  It’s tedious and a bit boring but the farmer assured me I had the most important job in the shed – if the cows don’t get pregnant, they can’t make milk and the farm goes out of business.  No pressure.  No pressure at all.

Being on oestrus watch means I stand on a wobbly piece of wood to look at the tops of the tails and hip bones of the cows as they rotate by me.  All cows have fluorescent paint covering the base of their tails.  If that paint has been rubbed off, that means she’s in season and the other cows have been mounting her.  The cows will also show fresh abrasions on their hip bones, or pins, and will exhibit an elevated body temperature.  And if you’re really unsure, check the vulva.  Cows in season tend to have a much cleaner vulva due to their restlessness and swiping of the tails.  Once I identify one, I follow them off the rotary and “draft” them off of the rest of the herd by diverting one of the gates and placing her in a holding yard where she will then be artificially inseminated.  Out of 1200 cows, only 8 were drafted today.  I pass the time by giving back scratches, touching up their paint, and playing the bongos on their butt in time to the music playing in the shed.

Mid bongo playing, I overheard the farmer telling the manager he had to go shoot a few cows.  I asked if I could tag along.  I take no thrill in watching an animal being put down but I do think it’s important to learn all the aspects, good and bad, of food production.  It was a gorgeous, mild morning and the sun had just come over the hills.  I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and we drove down to a smaller farm where a cow had gotten tangled in a fence and broken her hip.  She was in pain and needed to be put down.  We were met by a smaller bald man driving what looked like a flatbed tow truck.  The side of the truck simply said “Down Cows Dog Food”.  Truth in advertising.  I expected something traumatic but to my surprise it was quick and fairly quiet.  He simply brought out a .22 rifle and an unassuming knife.  With one quick crack of the gun, he shot the cow in the upper forehead just below her horns rendering her instantly brain dead and followed up by a lightning quick cut of her jugular.  It was over in 10 seconds.  And like loading a car, he placed a chain around her ankles and hoisted the cow up into the flatbed of the truck.  We hopped back on the motorcycle and drove further into the paddocks to another herd where two more cows not responding to veterinary care had to be put down.

These cows, because they were alive when the truck came to the farm, are slated for the pet food industry.  Older milking cows that are culled from the herd are sent to “the works” for human consumption where cows that die on the farm due to natural causes wind up at the rendering plant and are turned into fertilizer.  Down Cows Dog Food is a one-person business where he comes to the farm, shoots, loads up and then debones the cows himself.  The three cows he collected today will wind up as dog food in the United States.  Here’s the kick – all three cows came from the same farm – same feed, same care, everything.  However; some of the meat is purchased from processors selling regular dog food and some is purchased by processors touting higher priced organic pet food.  Hmm.

As I was driving home from the farm, I couldn’t help but think of the flatbed truck filled with dead cows making its way down the main road (hopefully not in front of a bus filled with school children.)