Have a Cow


Written By

Julia Shipley

Written on

December 01 , 2008

How badly do you want a cow? True or false:

1. ___ I like the smell of a cow.

2. ___ I can commit to never being away from home for more than 23 hours.

3. ___ I know and trust at least one other person who will help me milk this cow.

4. ___ I hate when flies land on me.

5. ___ I understand that a lactating cow produces milk 24 hours a day, and while I may default on my mortgage, neglect to visit my mother, skip my daughter’s ballet performance, or forget the appointment to have my oil changed, I simply may never diss Bossie.

6. ___ Despite being swatted with a matted tail, tickled by flies, and discouraged by the planting of a hoof in a brimming pail of milk, I know I can do this again in 12 hours.

7. ___ Cream on strawberries, cream and butter on potatoes, creamy milk poured over granola, yellow butter slathered on toast…. These violate my diet, and I am opposed to them.

If you answered False to #1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, then perhaps pillows, magnets, and T-shirts with bovine imagery will best fulfill your desire to have a cow.  If you answered True to #1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, and False to #4 and 7, then you crave more than Holstein home decor. Here’s the story of how I fulfilled my craving for a cow.


I, too, wanted to milk a cow—my cow.

I wanted to milk a cow the way Thoreau wanted to build a house on a pond and live deliberately: not just because, gee, wouldn’t it be nice, but because I wanted to make a pilgrimage without a suitcase, a quest without leaving town. To Milk A Cow became my goal, my dream, my mission. Not just any cow, my cow. I pictured our milking chores like vespers, the two of us sequestered in the cob-webby milking chapel, me with my forehead bowed against her flank, the strong streams of milk chanting when they hit the side of the steel pail.

To this end, I picked up a stanchion, a rubber bucket, and a halter at Mark’s yard sale. I connected a water pipe to a frost-free hydrant in my barn, to avoid hauling 25 gallons of water a day in buckets from the house. I built a wooden milking platform in the barn, purchased poly-wire fencing. Then I began helping with Sunday evening chores at a nearby dairy in exchange for a Jersey calf named Penny.

It takes about two years from the time a female calf is born to the moment you may pull up a stool, place your hand on her teat and expel that magnificent substance: milk. I could have purchased a milk cow, ready to go, instead of raising one, but that would have been like Thoreau going online and ordering a pre-fab cabin. I might have perused Agriview for an ad that read, “Family Cow: Jersey, very friendly and calm, hand or machine milk, early lactation, $2,000.” But I did not. I wanted to earn my cow’s milk, every drop, through caring for her. And I wanted to know exactly what went into her.

So I spent about $2,000 incrementally over the course of two years to prepare Penny for her first milking: $15 for 50 lbs. of organic grain every three weeks; $2.50 a bale for first-cut hay for two winters; $50 for kelp, salt block, and special minerals I call “magic dirt”; $15 to breed her using artificial insemination; $125 in vet fees to vaccinate and preg-check her; and $75 to pay a student to do chores when I was away.

After Penny freshened, my fridge became a holding tank for glass pickle jars and sauce pots filled with milk. Suddenly I had friends and neighbors dropping by, slipping me five dollars, and driving off with a full jug. I showed off at potlucks, showing up with fresh mozzarella. I ate chocolate pudding for breakfast, creamy corn chowder for lunch, and butter with bread for dinner—the most delicious, hard-won milk I’d ever ingested.

In hindsight, though, there were warning signs. Although Penny was born teeny, she threw the vet attempting to cauterize her emerging horns. It took two men to hold my hundred-pound calf steady. Later, she would joust at me with her hind leg as I practiced swiping my hand slowly around her teats. And sure enough, after she gave birth to a sleek bull calf, she clocked me every day for 75 days whenever I attempted to milk her.

“You’ve got to show her some discipline,” one friend advised me. “Let her know you’re the boss.” “You can borrow my kicker,” another offered, referring to a thigh-restraining device. “Tie her leg straight back—did you try that?” a third friend advocated. “Cows like a calm, orderly environment,” the cow book said, so I tuned the barn radio from NPR’s “All Things Considered” to the classical station. “I’ve got nose tongs,” someone volunteered. (Reader: I hope you never need to know about nose tongs.) “You shoulda never let the calf on her to begin with,” the retired farmer-neighbor clucked. “What happened to your jaw?” my friend asked, noting the new bruise.

After 75 days of milking, five temper tantrums, and half a bottle of Dewars, I came into the house, picked up the phone and left two messages—one with a nearby dairy farm, one with the beef broker. The dairy called me back first. We loaded my impossible, lovely cow back into the truck I had brought her home in two years before.

The following day at 4:00 p.m.—vespers, milking time—I was in the checkout line at Staples in Barre, buying computer paper and Sharpies. I had committed the equivalent of Thoreau calling a cab and asking the driver to drop him off at the Boston Hilton, then ordering room service. Dream Over.

Sort of. Penny is now a semi-docile, semi-bratty cow in a small herd who gives her milk over via machine. I started interviewing family cow farmers to compile as much information as I could about this noble, sometimes arduous endeavor. In the summers I teach students at Sterling College how to milk Winnie, the school’s placid Jersey. We sit on overturned buckets, one on each side, with our heads bowed against her warm flank. With curved hands we steadily ply two gallons out of those four teats—a miracle.

And in my barn, I’ve been piling up bales of hay, laying in sacks of sawdust, and filling an aluminum garbage can with grain as I prepare for my new Dexter calf, Peace.

About the Author

Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley wrote this article on a desk she stuck in her cow barn. With a grant from the Vermont Arts Council, she’s completing a book of braided essays titled, Hewn: Dispatches from Broken Ground. Since July she has been a writer in residence at the Helen Day Art Center’s Habitat for Artists in Stowe, both drawing and writing about farm tools. Readers who know of farmer-writers she may have overlooked, or who simply wish to chime in with thoughts on the literature of agriculture.

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