Flatlanders (those not originally from Vermont) enjoy seeing the postcard scenes of red barns nestled in green hillsides covered with black-and-white cows.
But many visitors to the Green Mountain state do not realize how important cows really are to farming and tourism for Vermont’s economy. So here’s a little education.
Is milking a cow an “udder” experience? Visitors often resort to bad puns when asking about the ubiquitous grazing creatures Vermonters simply call — cows. That’s right, so follow along and get your udders in order. (Cows have four, by the way.)
Are there male cows and female cows? you ask. Nope! All cows are females, but not all females are cows. Let’s rephrase that. Domestic cattle are called bovines. Male bovines are bulls. Mature female bovines – those that have calfed — are called cows. Females that have not yet given birth are heifers. Most of the animals grazing on Vermont hillsides are cows.
Ever wonder how many cows (and other related bovines) are in Vermont? Well, there don’t seem to be any exact figures, but Vermont’s farms — dairy and beef — contain nearly 200,000 bovines. Since the state has around 600,000 people, this means there is plenty of milk left over to sell in other states. Sadly, farmers don’t see much of that, so flatlanders who know and appreciate how important cows are to the state’s economy are bound to earn points with farmers, if not the cows.
The average milking cow produces about 17,000 pounds of milk per year, give or take a few drops. (Remember that the next time you think cows have it easy.) A cow’s milk is a healthy beverage for humans. Just one eight-ounce glass of milk contains about 25 percent of various important vitamins and minerals our bodies need each day.
How does a cow feel with a full udder? Well, my interview with the cow was canceled, but I can tell you that any cow will certainly have a cow if its udder is not timely relieved of milk. This keeps the dairy farmer plenty busy each day at the back end of a cow, as each cow needs to be milked two or three times a day.
Where do calves come from? In the olden days, the only way to make a calf was for cow to meet bull, and bovines aren’t very shy — any place in the field will do. But nowadays, technology has removed some of the fun — at least for the bovine — as many cows are artificially inseminated.
Just like people, cows come in black, white, brown, red and variations on those color schemes. But cows belong to breeds, not races. Vermont’s most commonly seen cows are the black-and-white Holsteins, known for their phenomenal milk production. The state’s next most popular breed is the brown Jersey cow, although Jerseys can be red, red-brown, and streaked with gray and black. Jersey’s are known for the richness of their output. Other common breeds include Guernsey, Ayrshire and Brown Swiss.
Why are cows so big? Well, why do some men go bald so young? It’s in the genes. Of course, the fact that cows also have four stomachs and eat buffet-style for about eight hours each day certainly helps put on the weight. Cows, particularly Jersey cows, are much bigger today than years past due to selective breeding.
Do baseball players and cows bulk up with steroids? The jury is still out on baseball, but some cows get bovine somatotropin (BST), a man-made version of a natural hormone.
I don’t know if BST makes the cows hit the ball farther, but it does enable them to produce about 15 percent more milk. Many farmers take pride in not using BST, preferring instead to go au naturel.
Cows produce more than just milk. They also make manure, and lots of it! Imagine how many meadow muffins exist on a dairy farm containing 150 cows — OK, maybe you don’t want to imagine that! — each weighing about 1,200 pounds. Manure is recycled on the farm as a field fertilizer, often stored in large pits as farmers no longer spread this liquid gold on their fields in winter in response to environmental concerns about water quality of the state’s rivers, streams and lakes. And the pit makes a pretty nice swimming pond in the summer. (Just kidding.)
Some farmers now collect some of their cow manure and load it into a machine that heats it. Heated manure creates a byproduct of methane gas (as well as a wonderful aroma), and the gas is used to create electricity.
Are dairy farms disappearing? There is no question that when it comes to land, money talks. However, there are still dairy farms in Vermont, although each year sees the passing of more and more of them. Vermont dairy farms vary in size, but the trend toward mega-farms in recent years means some farms feature hundreds and hundreds of milkers.
Some of these farms have been in the same families for generations. Several of the state’s dairy farms are more than 200 years old, while at least three date back to the Revolutionary War era.
Although black, white and brown cows cover the green hillsides, dairy farmers will turn blue if milk prices put farmers in the red. That’s why flatlanders who know and appreciate how important cows are to the state’s economy are bound to earn points with the locals.