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By the end of the four-day Tillamook County Fair, I’d made some friends from our dairy-farm community who seeming pleased, if not amused, by my fascination with cows and were happy to introduce me to their Holsteins.

Cow Stomach
My first adventure was with Helen, a large and compact woman, easy going and with the most cheerful smile and disposition I’d ever seen. I was dressed like her in faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and Wellies. But while Helen filled her boots, I clunked along the twenty yards from her old blue pickup to the pasture gate. On the way, I recited what I’d learned about the four parts of a cow’s stomach, and Helen, chuckling at my enthusiasm, confirmed what I’d learned: 

The Rumen holds 150 to 200 liters of partly digested food and is full of good bacteria that softens the food and ferments the carbs to produce energy.
The Reticulum forms the softened food into small lumps of cud which is returned to the cow’s mouth and chewed 40 to 60 times before being swallowed again.
The Omasum processes the cud by breaking it up and also regulates fluid absorption in the intestine.
The Abomasum works somewhat like the human stomach to digest the useful nutrients which are gradually absorbed into the blood.
Helen opened the pasture gate. “Wow,” I exclaimed as we stepped into the vast grassy land where cows—she’d said about a 150—were grazing and ruminating. As we walked, I soaked in the sweet smell of grass, the blue sky, and the feeling that the world of the sacred cows had been opened to me. 
“I think I could turn and live with the animals,” Walt Whitman had written and I began to recite, my eyes closed as I spun around in the wide open space, “they are so placid and self-contained…” Opening my eyes to look, I saw Helen laughing as over her shoulder…cows, a whole pack of them…were running, no, stampeding toward us. And fast. Oh holy shit…not just those cows…but all of the cows were coming at us from every direction. 150 of them bounding like 1500-pound gazelles across the pasture and closing in….

45—Manure aka B.S.

I listened as the dairy wife on my third farm tour described the demands on family dairies now competing with those agribusiness facilities with thousands of cows. After recalling the hard but simpler world of her grandfather’s fifty-cow dairy farm, she said a family friend in Wisconsin had just sold his sixty-cow dairy rather than take on the pressures of expansion and subject his cows to less personalized treatment. 

And as I listened, I watched her hundred-plus cows lumbering along the narrow cement walkway into the milking parlor. The milker was efficient and quick, mechanically wiping off the teats, hooking them up to the milking machines, and when each cow had given her three gallons moving the animal on.

Rotary Milker in and Industrial Dairy
There was no abuse here, only the impersonality of process. 

This was exactly what I’d experienced as a teacher in a system that herded children through overcrowded classrooms on their way to graduation. 
As the years passed and the system became mired in problems, the impersonality grew into a subjugation to process.
(For an introductory contrast between the family and corporate dairies, click here.)

Schools in this culture became like businesses committed to increasing production at the lowest possible cost. In the case of schools, the product is the children themselves, also known as test scores and the graduation rate. 

As some forty years of school reforms were based more on political, financial, and administrative expediency than sound teaching methods, achievement declined. Image in corporate cultures being everything, officials maintained graduation rates by dumbing down the curriculum. The obsession with testing was a bureaucratic solution that was no solution at all but rather a diversion from admitting and reforming failed policies. As student populations increased, budgets for expanding facilities did not keep pace. All this had turned many schools into arid learning environments, not much different than grassless feedlots.

Cows, of course, were not children or pets. For thinking of them as such, one would be charged with anthropomorphizing or, even worse, sentimentality. But the books I’d read celebrating bovines did just that. They portrayed cows as the sentient and personable Holsteins I’d encountered in the roadside field. However, the reality of their life on the farm was not the homey barns and happy pasture pictured in the books.

Nothing in those books even hinted at the problems inherent in those two little facts, presented as aside in John Pukite’s, A Field Guide to Cows: 
“An average cow drinks about 30 gallons of water and eats 95 pounds of feed per day.” (p. 85)
A 1,000 pound cow produces on average 10 tons of manure a year.” (p. 73)

44—Setting Off Down the Cow Path

By the end of June 1999, I was swept up in learning about cows. Never once did it even occur to me that the infatuation sparked by that first roadside encounter with the Holstein ladies had crossed the border into obsession. 

The first two farm tours had hinted at the fact that I might be entering a world of shadows. But that was part of the excitement. I was going to write something that would reinvigorate an understanding of the sacred and delightful nature of the cow. I went racing down the cow path into a fascinating array of facts from About Cows by Sara Rath (citation at end):
1874   The ice cream soda  was created by Robert M. Green for the semi-centennial celebration of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

1881   The ice cream sundae was created when a guy named George asked for chocolate sauce on his ice cream. Prior to this, chocolate sauce was reserved for ice cream sodas. Served only on Sundays, the new treat cost five cents.

1883  Cream cheese was first made.

1884  The glass milk bottle was invented.

1885  Dr. De Laval invented the steam-turbine separator making it possible to pay producers according to the richness of butterfat in their milk or cream.

1890  Dr. S. M. Babcock’s test for measuring the fat content of milk eliminated the possibility of adulterating the milk with water and became the foundation for the rapid development of the dairy industry in America.

1893  Russian scientist M. F. Ivanov performed the first artificial insemination of cattle.

1894  Dr. De Laval patented the first mechanically operated milking machine.    

1904   The ice cream cone was first served at the St. Louis World’s Fair when an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes and a Syrian vendor stepped in with a sugar waffle, which he rolled into a cone.

1911  The first rotary-type milk bottle filler was perfected.

1914  The California Central Creamery was among the first to transport milk in a tank on a truck.

1919  Chocolate milk was introduced. Homogenized milk was first sold in Connecticut.

1924  Adda Howie was the first woman added to the Wisconsin Agricultural Hall of Fame. Each week she cleaned her stables with soap and boiling water. Her barn had windows with screens and curtains, and milkers washed their hands before moving from one cow to the other.

1925 Delivery trucks replaced horse-drawn milk wagons.

1932  Milk with Vitamin D was first available in Detroit.

1933  Four hundred farmers were arrested in a protest against falling milk prices.