There’s something oddly feminine about a cow.
Maybe its the gentle eyes, with their long lashes, or the delicate placement of each hoof on the ground, or perhaps the soft blowing of her breath as she investigates your hands. Despite her size, sometimes she’s just such a lady.
And yet at exactly the same moment, she’s seven hundred kilos of bellowing, farting and crapping. Cattle are ridiculously fluid-y, gassy animals, just in general. As well as the 50 litres of milk they can produce per day, there’s also her daily output of 25 litres of urine, 60 litres of crap, 150 litres of saliva and 1000 litres of gas.
When working with animals, it’s always important to identify their main danger zones, so that you can avoid becoming a victim of them. Dogs, for example, have a danger zone at the front end, which is their powerful jaws filled with 42 sharp teeth. Likewise, a snake has a venomous end, but the rest of it is pretty safe. Cats, on the other hand, are armed at the front and on all four paws. Naturally.
Large animals are dangerous all round, because of their sheer weight and strength. But when it comes to cows, my concerns are mostly around the back end. At this end she has a big blind spot where she can’t see you past her own ass, and she’s not a fan of surprises. She also has a pair of hooves that she can belt you with much faster than you’d imagine, and a great long tail that gives you a whipping out of nowhere. But injury by force is, probably naively, not my biggest fear. At this end, she also has a vulva, which releases great torrents of urine… and an anus. I’m sure you know what that does.
But her udder is at this end too, which means that the only place to stand in a milking parlour… is right here:
This isn’t the first time I’ve stood smack in the middle of this particular danger zone. This is the same dairy I went to for my pre-uni work experience.
They have in excess of 300 milking cows and heifers here, which are a hodgepodge of Ayrshires, Friesians, Holsteins, Jerseys, Norwegian Reds and every conceivable cross. And so, unlike your typical black-and-white Holstein Friesian herds, every arse is a different size, shape and colour – as individual as each animal.
After a few milkings, you start to recognise individuals by their little differences. Some prefer to stand towards the back of the queue, whereas the same faces can always be found leading the parlour-charge from the front. Tiny little Jerseys scuttle after the lumbering Holstein giants, and you start to spot pairs and trios that always come in together. Tiger could be recognised by her gorgeous brindled stripes, Florence by her snail pace that holds everyone up every day, and Sunny by her extra teats. Even those that I couldn’t name became familiar, because I could spot someone by the pattern on her udder, or the directions her teats pointed in.
And it’s not just about having cutesy names to call them by as they enter the parlour. I need to know which ones will stand quietly while I put the machines on, and which ones will try to kick my head in. I need to know which ones only milk on three of their four teats, and which ones have mastitis, an inflammation of the udder.
But cows aren’t the only visitors to this parlour. I encountered a great surprise the very first time I milked here, when I was learning to put machines onto udders. This is a tricky task at first, which has to be completed mostly without looking, because looking under that bar earns you a knockout kick to the face. And so with one hand supporting the unit off the crap-coated floor, the other hand must hold a teat cup while your fingers search for the corresponding teat. Left-fore to left-fore, and so on… because you can’t cross cups over if you put them on the wrong one! Once you find the teat, which could be a long way from where you’re standing, you have to guide it into the cup so that the vacuum sucks it in and makes a seal. But you have to watch that it doesn’t suck it in folded over, because there ain’t no milk gonna come outta that. Some cows have great teats for this, but a lot of the heifers have small teats that point towards each other, which can mean that two get sucked into one cup, which is no good. Additionally, you must do this left-handed down one side of the parlour and right-handed down the other. And all this is often completed while the cow bashes your hands with her hind hooves.
This was going well, until I arrived at a set of very solid legs. Dangling between them was a bag of some sort, but it wasn’t an udder. It was a ballsack.
“You could try and milk that, but he wouldn’t like you right much.” were the words of wisdom that came from behind me, followed by, “Do you want to squeeze ’em?”
Do I what? I’ve been asked this question quite a few times now, and it’s always really hard to judge how to respond. As a matter of fact, I do want to squeeze them, because it’s really important to know what they should feel like. But how do I express this without looking weird?
“Oh, yes please” feels to enthusiastic, while “Go on, then” sounds like I’d rather not. At that moment, I went with, “Yeah, sure… if that’s okay?”
Like, did I just ask a bloke if it was okay to squeeze someone else’s balls? Oh, man.
When I first milked on a dairy, it took time to develop the rhythm that’s involved in managing the efficient throughput of cows. Udders need to be cleaned and fore-milked by hand, before the machines are put on. They must be monitored to prevent over-milking, and removed when she’s finished. After this, the teats need spraying with antibacterials, before releasing the row of cows. But all the cows milk at slightly different rates and have different volumes to give, there are two rows of 30 to run simultaneously, levers need pulling to deliver feed rations into the troughs, and gates need releasing and closing to control the movement of cows. It’s something of a dance trying to coordinate this with 2 people in the parlour, but it’s like clockwork when it’s done right.
Meanwhile the threat of a pat on the head looms, literally, overhead. The parlour operators stand in a long pit, as you can see in the image, which puts the cows up on a platform for easier access, bums facing inwards. This is aptly known as a herringbone arrangement. But at any moment, and without warning, someone’s sphincter will open to release an impressive stream of watery manure directly into the pit from on high.
And you’re not even safe standing three feet back. Oh, no.
As the hot manure hits the concrete of either the platform edge or the pit floor, it ricochets with astounding radius to splatter across everything in the vicinity. I eventually found that the performance tends to open with an initial clap as the first movement hits the floor. You then have in the region of half a second to turn your back and start walking before the rest follows in a relentless torrent.
Often, though, the introductory clap was inaudible over the loud milking machinery, or the great jungle of hanging pipes hindered my escape, and I frequently ended up peppered with brown spots.
It would splatter on my neck and ears, in my hair, on my forehead and cheeks, and yes… even on my eyes and lips. And there was no getting it off, because the rest of me was also coated in it. So I had to, quite literally, let it slide.
Sometimes, some kind of urge would take hold of the whole herd, and I’d narrowly escape a few turd torrents only to come face-to-face with a cascade of piss. In the end, it came down to a choice. Naturally I always chose just to shower in spray of warm piss. You never know, might even rinse some of the brown spots off.
And of course, once the milking was finished, we set about washing down the parlour. After a few near-misses, I developed a new kind of shuffly gait in my gigantic wellies to minimise the constant risk of skidding on the slippery coating of crap on the floor. I dread to think what it looked like, but at the time I really didn’t care. I am not falling into that.
This whole event occurred twice per day, with the first requiring an uncomfortably early start, and my second breakfast of the day was at 9am. In-between the milkings, I was kept busy with an array of jobs on the farm which, fantastically, involved zipping around the extensive grazing pastures on a quad. Get in.
But Thursday was a vet day, and I love vet days. He had visited earlier in the week to discuss the herd’s performance data, and had returned to check on the last remaining cows that had failed to become pregnant over the last 8 weeks of artificial insemination and servicing by the bulls. Yes, when a cow has sex with a bull, she is ‘serviced’ by him. This is the same term used with sows and boars, tups and ewes, and most other commercial animals – it’s such a romantic affair.
Now, the best way for the vet to get a good idea about the condition of a cow’s reproductive tract is using an ultrasound… per rectum. And so as I arrived to find him with his arm in up to the shoulder, I was inappropriately excited to hear him say, “Grab a glove, pick a cow, get in there.”
Get in there. Can’t wait.
And so I grabbed myself a glove. Not a glove that just your hand goes into, but one which continues to unroll until you might as well climb all the way in and wear it like a onesie. Watching the vet’s technique, I walked the row of bottoms and approached an unsuspecting Ayrshire from behind. The vet looked over, “Right, just pull her tail to one side and go in with a torpedo shape. Wait, did you lube?”
No, I did not. But fear not, just behind me there was the most gigantic bucket of lube, and I just went ahead and submerged my arm to the elbow. Feeling as slippery as an eel, I returned to my chosen cow and tried to lift her tail. But there was a problem. Having just recovered from invasion by the vet, and evidently feeling no desire to be penetrated again, she clamped her tail tightly over her bumhole. Oh, no you don’t. Although I felt a bit guilty about overriding her attempts to protect herself, I pulled the tail firmly to one side and over her back, to reveal a (very tightly puckered) arsehole. Simply divine.
To the untrained eye, this hole simply looked like a wrinkled anus. But to me, it looked like a portal to another world. I’m so excited.
Squeezing my hand into a torpedo shape, I tried to introduce my fingers into the middle of the pucker. It was like… God, how do I even find an everyday comparison? It was like trying to squeeze your fingers into a drawstring bag, while somebody yanks hard on the drawstrings. But thanks to the lube, Mrs Slipperyfingers got her fingertips in, and the sphincter popped open, engulfing my hand and wrist like the mouth of a carp. From here, I tried to advance my torpedo. But somebody didn’t want me in there, and all of the cow’s rectal muscles compressed down on my arm to try and eject me back out. I looked down the length of the animal, who was arching her back with the effort, to see one of her eyes looking back at me. Possibly the strangest eye contact I’ve ever made.
I made a decision just to wait her out – I wasn’t causing her any pain, we just needed to get acquainted. Within about ten seconds she relaxed, and the space I felt was phenomenal. Having been accustomed to the tight, narrow vagina of the sheep, the bovine rectum seems cavernous in comparison. And it was swilling with crap. Through said crap, I advanced my arm to the shoulder, by which time my face was uncomfortably close to her buttocks, and her sphincter was squeezing tight around my upper arm. I felt along each slimy surface to orientate myself with the anatomy. Laterally, I felt large, soft structures of the hindgut. Dorsally, I felt the hard, knobbly underside of each individual vertebra, and the large transverse processes characteristic of bovine lumbar vertebrae. It’s bizarre in an indescribable way, to feel organs and bones from the inside like that. It almost feels dangerously invasive.
“If you palpate along the ventral surface, you’ll find a long, firm sausage. This is the vagina, and the cervix is a bit further forward.” the vet piped up, “Then you’ll feel it split into two branches – the uterine horns. With practice, you’ll learn to feel for an embryo. For now, try the black one, because she has an ovarian cyst like a golf ball – you can’t miss it.”
I felt like assuring him that I probably could miss it, but concentrated instead on retreating from my Ayrshire’s rectum. Exit was considerably easier than entry, and my arm reappeared with a grossly satisfying slurp.
A minute later, and it was sliding into the black cow’s behind. I immediately began pressing against the floor of the rectum, and quickly identified the long sausage that I’d been promised. As I was following it along the bowel, an ominous rumbling arose in the belly of the animal. Hmm. Very soon, the rumbling had turned to a wet gurgling, which seemed to be advancing towards my end. But then there was silence, and I continued my palpation with no further thought about it. Then quite suddenly, my hand was submerged as the rectum filled with fluid faeces, and my arm was locked down under the contraction of the rectal walls.
Shit, indeed. Under the enormous pressure of the bowel walls, there was only one way to go. From between my arm and the cow’s anus erupted a series of explosions that released gas and slurry right into my chest, like artillery fire. With no other option but to ride it out, it was all I could do to keep my mouth firmly shut and let the ammunition dry out.
When the barrage had finally ended, and the rectal vice released my arm, I thanked her very much and continued my venture along her vagina, until I could feel the diverging uterine horns. Pushing left and right, my hand stumbled across a hard mass about the size of a golf ball – aha!
“I found it, honey!” I exclaimed to the cow, who showed no apparent signs that she shared my enthusiasm for this discovery. Whatever, Debbie Downer.
While I admit that I can’t complain about shit when I’ve deliberately shoved my hand up a cow’s ass, this placement in its entirety has revolved around that common theme. I spent large chunks of milking time trying, and failing, to dodge torrents in the parlour, and wiping great gobs of it off udders so that it doesn’t get into your morning cup of tea. After that, I scraped literally tonnes of the stuff into giant underground tanks, and scrubbed it endlessly off my own skin in a desperate bid to avoid E.coli poisoning. I slipped in it, waded through it, got stuck in it, coated in it, peppered with it, and stank of it 24/7. It turned me into a walking biohazard, leaving stench and chaos in my wake. Including, terribly, in mum’s car:
But all the shite in the world will never extinguish the affection I have for cows. They’re not all that bright, but they’re remarkably curious, affectionate and entertaining. Next time you believe you’re being chased by cows, just slow down and let them have a look at you, because you’ll connect with them in a way that most people don’t think you can.
And I’ll just stick this on the end of my post, because I’m so very excited to tell you: I passed my Summer exams with 87% – which means I finished 1st year at vet school with a Distinction. Who’da thunk it?!
I write this now from my temporary bed at the pig unit I’ve been at since Monday (which is why this has taken so long to write!). I’m absolutely shattered, but I can’t wait to tell you all about it – see you later!