Monday, November 12:
An afternoon at the auction barn is entertaining and informative. Cattle prices are down, farmers unloading extra animals now to avoid feeding them expensive corn and hay over the winter. Nice first calf Holstein heifers, bred, were going for something between seven and eight hundred dollar, good family cows if someone wanted an animal that gives the volume of a Holstein – this herd averaged about eight gallons a head per day – and didn’t mind the low butterfat. Buy one of these girls and a couple of pigs and you have milk, pork, and, if she drops a bull calf, beef for the next year. Find a stock or security that offers such dividends.
Looking down into the lanes of animals from the elevated walk leading into the auction arena is like looking over a solid sea of furry backs, red, black, black and white, brown, and an odd dull grey-brown that looks like teddy-bear fleece. Many men in ball caps, sweaty shirts, jeans, and thick leather boots chivvy them around, opening and shutting gates, urging the animals along with a brisk “come UP, boss,” or a quiet “move, dumbitch,” directing their courses with long switches like a blind man’s cane or a conductor’s baton. Men and women of few words lean against the wooden rails of the elevated walk, seeming to absorb information from the scene without the need for words. Lunch may be purchased in the coffee room from sneakered waitresses with tiny veils pinned over hair drawn up in smooth buns: chili soup, coney dogs, burgers, pie.
Brought in singly or in groups, cows and heifers are touched up with the long canes so they turn and turn again, giving potential bidders every chance to take a good look at them. We sit on tiers of wide wooden steps or bleachers, the intent observers hunched forward, elbows on thighs, those for whom nothing is new leaning back, one leg cocked up on the other knee. Only eyes move, heads nod the slight nod that commits the nodder to another twenty-five dollars on the bid. It is interesting to learn how much we actually know about dairy cows now; the cows we like go high, the ones we think look wry or pinched or spooky bring lower prices. One or two proud beauties bring considerably higher prices than their only adequate sisters. Not a few are knocked down to men in the front, regular bidders from the locker buying low price animals for the burger mill.
Home at four-thirty to milk, we find the high tunnel over the spinach, covered only yesterday with six-mil plastic sheeting, half-collapsed by the high winds of the early afternoon. Now rain puddles fill the sagging folds of plastic, weighing the cover down. It is obvious that the stock-panel hoops will need some reinforcement, a dreary thought in this chilly rain. More pleasant to find the cows waiting at the dairy stall, to thaw chilly hands on their warm udders; a dairy cow radiates heat like a stove, uncomfortable in the summer, delicious in cold weather. The girls are making dinner up at the house to be ready when the milk is strained, the buckets washed. It is growing dark out.