Photo by Nicolette Hahn Niman
We prefer focusing on the enjoyable parts of farming but there are tough days, too. Even painful ones. Like last Friday. The morning started well. We began our chores as the sun burned through early fog, and moisture wafted up from the earth. Then we found one of our best cows lying by the water trough. She looked peaceful, her legs folded beneath her and her head on the ground, as though she'd simply taken a drink and laid down to rest. But she wasn't sleeping; she was dead. She'd been struggling with an illness for several weeks and we had been desperately attempting to heal her. Her name was Eve and she will be deeply missed.
Eve's mother is Nicolette's favorite cow, a longtime resident of the ranch we call Girlfriend, a black cow with a white face and black band across her eyes. When Girlfriend was eight years old our vet told us that she was not pregnant that season. Cows have only one calf each year, so a ranch cannot afford to keep infertile cows. Normally, when an older cow comes up "open," she is sent to town. But because Girlfriend is such a gentle and beautiful animal, Nicolette had a special appreciation for her and pleaded the case for clemency. This happened again the following year and, for the second time, she was granted a reprieve. By this point, our ranching peers were saying that this cow would definitely never give birth to another calf.
But miracles have a way of happening on the farm. After two years of barrenness--and having reached the ripe age of ten--our vet announced that Girlfriend was pregnant. We were jubilant. A few months later she gave birth to a handsome red calf with a white patterned face. Like her previous calf, it was a male. That disappointed us a bit because we figured it would surely be Girlfriend's last calf, with no cattle on the ranch to carry forward her noble lineage.
It's probably hard for some people who haven't spent time on real farms to understand why both of us cried when we found Eve that morning.
Then Girlfriend amazed us by coming up pregnant again the following year. When she looked ready to calve, we kept her under close watch, checking her several times daily. One morning she had disappeared into the brush. She'd gone off to find a quiet, private place to give birth, something she knew well how to do. Nicolette put on a long sleeved shirt and anxiously began patrolling the large pasture, fighting her way through 10-feet-high patches of poison oak, worried that the old girl might have difficulty calving. But when she finally discovered the cow, she was calmly standing and chewing her cud, as is her habit. At her side was a beautiful calf who looked nearly identical to her, only in miniature. It was black-bodied with black and white markings like her mother's on her face. Nicolette cautiously approached and discovered, with great joy, that the calf was a female.
This pleased us enormously. Bill had recently left Niman Ranch, Inc. and, as part of the separation, had lost the cattle herd he'd spent decades developing. There were protracted negotiations to buy the herd back from the company, but they fell through. We ended up buying just two animals--Girlfriend and an orphan steer who had also made a special place in our hearts. In other words, two animals that were unlikely to ever have any offspring. So Eve was our great hope for the future. A healthy, beautiful calf, we saw her as the foundation of our new herd and our new life. It never occurred to us that just two years later she would predecease her aging mother.