Why I’ll Never Work on a Dairy Farm Again
Getting a working holiday visa for Australia is easy: fill out the form, throw them a couple hundred dollars, and possibly get a chest x-ray if you’ve been anywhere tuberculosis is a concern. I got mine in a matter of days. However, in order to qualify for a second year working holiday visa, you must complete eighty-eight days of ‘regional’ work. That is, work that is anywhere in a rural postal code and related to agriculture.
In no other regard is there such camaraderie among backpackers as in finding and kvetching about farm work. I have never witnessed such efficient networking; neither have I heard fish tales so big or so harrowing. I split my eighty-eight days between working the grain harvest in Western Australia, an organic sheep farm, and a dairy farm. This is a story about the dairy farm. I took to the farmer, Matt, right away. He was a sweet man, the Mr Rogers of dairy farming. Everybody loved him, even the cows. He’d pick me up from the house and we’d go puttering around the farm together – chasing escaped cows back into their paddocks, chopping down and de-barking trees, and talking about life. It could have been nauseatingly idyllic if not for the milking.
Oh, the horrors of milking cows.
Before the true horror-show began, seven hundred recalcitrant cows had to be herded in from the paddocks; most days in the rain, as it was a soggy winter in southwest Australia. The cows seemed to enjoy making the process as difficult as possible. They’d split into guerrilla factions and take off into the trees, lumbering Guevaras all. If they couldn’t make an escape, the ladies would cluster and stand perfectly still. I’d be drenched and muddy on the quad bike, waving my arms and shouting maniacally, and they’d look disdainfully over their shoulders at me, as if to say, “Calm down, human.”
The milking shed was like any old barn, dim and dank and warm with the smells of manure and oats. Taking up most of the space was a large contraption much like a merry-go-round, onto which the cows were shunted. Seventy cows fit on it at a time; it took around three hours to get them all milked. The yards that fed into the shed were structured like the Immigration queue at the airport. Each cow waited her turn to step into the partitioned slot, back end towards us. In the centre was a trough full of oats — cow candy, at it were. They liked it so much that once we finally got them onto the wheel, they didn’t want to leave when their turn was up. And so it went, every goddamn day, twice a day. Sisyphus had it easy.
Stationed at the left side of the wheel, two people quickly attached suction cups to udders, taking care to keep from getting kicked. It was hell on the upper arms. Every now and then a steer would sneak onto the ride, and one had to be on their toes so as not to try and attach suction cups to him. On the other side of the wheel was the person who removed the suction cups, and coaxed the cows out of the shed and back into the paddock. This was my job. And it was a challenge, too. They’d either refuse to back up, or back up and then get on again to go for another ride. When hollering didn’t motivate them, there was a hose with which to give them a squirt, like disciplining a rascally cat. One of the young guys, Trevor, hit them sometimes, on the bony protrusions on their backsides. I did not like him. And then there was the shit. It got everywhere. Protective aprons and gloves offered only a flimsy defence. By the end of the milking, we’d all be covered in it, head to toe. I learned, very quickly, to get the hell out of the way when you see a cow arching her back, unless you want to be in the direct line of fire.
On the plus side, whenever I have a bad day now, there is a great comfort in reminding myself that at least I’m not literally getting shit on.
One day, Matt collected me from the house and said that we were going to help the blokes — two gruff old farmers and the hateful Trevor — with a dehorning. Dehorning is necessary on farms where the herd is in close quarters; otherwise they’ll gore each other. On larger cattle stations where it’s not done, every now and then a beast will be found dead with its head stuck between trees or tangled in a fence. Solid reasons, however, do not make the actual procedure any easier to witness. It is barbaric. There was only a small subset of the herd to dehorn that day, maybe fifty or so of the younger cows. Matt, Trevor, and I gathered them into the yards, and the older farmers readied their instruments. The yards are arranged in a loose spiral, larger pens feed into smaller ones, culminating in the races – a short, cattle-sized corridor, at the end of which is a metal contraption that holds them in place, so they don’t thrash about too much. Each cow was held tight in the races in turn, and their horns were cut off with a small electric saw. They squalled and reared and fell to their knees in pain. Blood spurted from the raw stumps in long, pulsing arcs. Why they didn’t at least use an anesthetic or sedative, I don’t know.
When each beast was released from the hold, she staggered away and shook her head back and forth in grotesque slow motion. Blood spattered the wooden bars of the pens and pooled in the divots in the mud left by boots and hooves. I had to look away. I was going to cry and I didn’t want them to see. Trevor took a repugnant delight in telling me that all of the cows were pregnant. “What?” I said, ” We’re doing this to pregnant women? This is so mean.”
The old codgers looked up from their dirty work and laughed.