I live on a small farm. Among the many activities that take place on a daily basis, we care for and raise pure bred- show quality dairy cows. It is Spring time, there are several pregnant cows, we have 2 new calves, one a few weeks old and one a few months. Both are incredibly cute, lively, affectionate and bottle-fed.
It is a widespread practice in the dairy industry to separate the mothers from their babies shortly after birth. Having a baby establishes your precious milk supply. The more you nurse, the more milk you will have. It’s a pretty neat feedback loop. The more the cows are milked the larger the quantity of milk. Dairy cows are bred specifically for the quality and quantity of their milk supply. The milk is the prized commodity! Typically, cows are milked twice daily no later than 12 hours apart.
Lineage is also very important. We may have three generations on the land at any one time. All of the cows are artificially inseminated from the best stock. Sperm is barcoded and scanned and specifically linked for a particular heifer timed perfectly for when she is in heat. We don’t know the names of the bulls; but we know the names of all the offspring and they will come to us by name for feeding, milking and moving from one pasture area to another.
Phoebe is the daughter of Pandora, she had Peekaboo our youngest baby calf. She had an easy unassisted birth out in a muddy wet pasture. We have had more than our share of rain. Jubilee’s mother’s name is Joy. Her grandmother is Juno, her mother lives on another farm. Both calves live together in the barn, they have excellent care and surroundings. Phoebe cannot see her baby in the barn, but can hear her mooing. She stands along the fence waiting her turn to be fed and milked and often will be seen staring at the barn where her daughter is. She will moo back, and lean on the section of fence closest to the calves barn.
After Phoebe is milked, her warm milk is collected separately and taken to her baby to be fed by her caregivers. There are only 2 or 3 “dairy maids” that do this regularly. The calves love them. They have different techniques for holding the bottle, teaching her to wean from bottle and their fingers to the bucket. She is rubbed and cuddling until she is full and most of Phoebe’s milk is gone. This attention gets them accustomed to human touch. Any remainder is given to the pigs, the milk is not stored or sold or given to any other calves.
I often wonder how Phoebe feels. I can remember what it was like early on to be separated from my baby. It was so uncomfortable even when I could rationalize it was for a good reason. I didn’t just think about my baby, or worry, I was acutely aware of the fullness and heat of my breasts. I was sure that the baby was fine. At least I hoped so… I didn’t like the feeling of fever and feeling engorged and leaking milk on my clothes. Nothing felt as good, sweet relief as having the baby latch on and take care of my little problem. Peace and maybe nap time couldn’t be far away. As my baby got older, I so appreciated breaks, and time away from my baby especially when I could control those moments. Having my baby in earshot, was both a comfort and a burden. My body, heart and breasts would respond to hearing my baby. Seeing your baby is different.
Much of the time, nursing mothers spend today is preparing for the time they will be away from their babies. Preparing and preserving their milk. Many pump and nurse at the same time. The infant on one breast, the pump on the the other. They are so incredibly efficient. If they can’t be with their babies, at least their babies can have their own breast milk.
As we shift our focus to the interconnectedness between mother and baby, perhaps it is the bond and relationship that is challenged and not the product of milk secretions that we treasure. Is there grief, loss, regret, relief, longing? What if there are no words just yet to describe how the nursing mother feels during periods of separation from her baby.
Please share your story, how does it feel when you want to nurse and you and your baby are not together?