Each day we wander the Vermont woods for an hour or two. I love the leave-taking, the sound of the goats’ bells. Herding is a way of doing something while doing nothing; it asks only for one’s presence, awake, watching animals and earth. Wind rakes the trees. Clouds float shadows through the grass.
— By Brad Kessler, Goat Song: a seasonal life, a short history of herding and the art of making cheese
By JUDITH SUTHERLAND
Farm and Dairy columnist
It doesn’t take a moment’s thought to answer the question a fellow asked me not long ago. My favorite job on the farm was bringing in the milking herd from the far pasture.
As soon as I was old enough, I learned the thrill of setting off ahead of everyone else in order to land this job. I would find our English Shepherd, Bill, waiting anxiously for me, and I knew if I didn’t hurry up he would have the job started without any help from me.
Truth be told, he only needed one of us to open the electric fences, but he seemed to realize my role in the whole scheme of things, and respected my presence.
I would cut through the dairy barn to grab the stock cane. That weathered stock cane was symbolic more than anything, sort of like the Olympic torch, giving me grown-up powers. I twirled it like a baton, eventually hooking it on my shoulder as I’d seen my dad do hundreds of times.
Bill, happy to answer his shepherding instincts, seemed to urge me to hurry up. If that dog could have talked, I bet he would have said this was his favorite part of the day as well.
If it was a busy season on the farm, I would first check to see if Dad had left any instructions posted in the milking parlor before heading out to bring in the herd.
I still recall feeling sort of high and mighty walking across the wide open pasture with the stock cane the first few times I was allowed to do this job by myself.
Opening secured gates as I went, I felt like Top Dog at the Pentagon. All it took was a slight crack in an insulator fence handle to zing me back down to size with a good zap of electricity.
The herd responded upon sight, knowing it was time to lumber up the hill toward the barn for milking time, making this no job at all, just a pleasant walk more than anything.
There was always the secret hope of seeing a newborn calf out in the big pasture, though we tried hard to avoid that by penning up the heifers that were close to freshening in what we called the Doc Smith maternity pen. Doc was our neighbor, friend and veterinarian, and every one of us knew his phone number by heart.
We could count on a couple of stubborn Holsteins having wandered as far as the fence would take them. I was wise enough to just enjoy the clouds floating overhead and green grass at my feet.
Stomping through tall grasses in my barn boots, I knew to be patient with the pace, a virtue we all learned on the farm without even knowing we were learning it. As the summer wore on, bugs and flies took a lot of fun out of the job, but some early spring and summer days were pretty near perfect.
Autumn was the best of all. After having been cooped up in school all day, this was heavenly. The fellow who asked me about my favorite farm job told me he, too, loved herding the cattle in to milk at night, his small boyhood herd having to cross a creek, a country road, then pass through a narrow village alley.
When he and his brothers had finished hand-milking the cows, it was his job to see the herd safely back to the quiet pasture for the night.
“It was the best part of the whole day,” he told me. Without another word said, I knew exactly what he meant.
The cows, pleasant and calm, were ready for their return walk to pasture, and a freshly-cooked supper awaited back at the farm house after the magical stock cane was hung up on the tall gate for the night.
It doesn’t get much better than that.