We don't want to switch cows all winter, so we have a whole bunch of cows to sell before the snow flies. This has become something of a perennial problem.
Beginning in late summer, Glen and I each make a list of who should go and who should stay. Then we take those lists and try to come up with a list we agree on, much the way our legislators use conference committees to agree on a bill they can pass. It's a process neither of us enjoy.
This year, to make the situation even worse, we have lobbyists trying to sway our votes.
Last week, our cattle hauler came to pick up a couple of cows who we had on the 'do not breed' list. As he backed the trailer up to the barn, Dan and Monika appeared on the front steps of the house.
"Don't sell Lucy," Dan shouted at the top of his lungs. (Lucy is Dan's pet - the cow who lets Dan and Monika lay on top of her in her stall.)
Then, after Monika said something to Dan, he shouted again:
"Monika doesn't want you to sell Garnet, either." (Garnet is the Milking Shorthorn cow who Monika loves to help dip and put the milker on.)
"And don't sell Sable." (Sable was the mother of one of Monika's fair calves. I haven't told her yet that we sold Sable last month.)
This wasn't our children's first lobbying effort.
Two weeks ago we had the vet out to gender check a group of pregnant cows. We also had a couple of cows who needed to be preg checked, one of which was Lucy. Dan and Monika were in the barn with us as we worked through the list. While we worked, we discussed the implications of the result from each gender check. If we know whether a cow is carrying a heifer calf or a bull calf, that information gets factored into the decision about whether she'll spend the winter with us or spend the winter somewhere else.
After Doc checked Lucy, he said, "Pregnant" Glen and I let out a sigh of relief and we told Dan that Lucy was going to have a baby.
A few cows later, Dan pressed his face into my leg and I realized he was weeping.
"What's wrong, Dan?" I asked with concern.
"We don't know if Lucy is going to have a girl or a boy. And if she's going to have a boy, she'll get sold," he said.
We quickly explained that it was too early to tell if Lucy was going to have a heifer or a bull, and that, even if she was going to have a bull calf, we wouldn't sell her.
Dan accepted our explanation and relaxed. But he obviously didn't stop thinking about it. That night, when Glen tucked Dan and Monika into bed, Dan said to Glen: "Promise me that if Lucy gets sick, you'll call the vet the fix her."
After which, Monika promptly made him also promise to call the vet if Garnet or Sable got sick.
I thought we had been doing a decent job teaching our kids about the facts of dairy farm life: Sometimes cows get sick, sometimes cows die, and sometimes cows are sold. We don't like it when any of those things happen, but they're part of dairy farming. The sadness we feel when we say good-bye to a cow isn't a bad thing - it means she was an important part of our lives.
I'm afraid my explanations haven't been enough.
We were driving home from town one afternoon last week when Dan asked, from the back of the van, "Why do we have to sell cows?"
I can usually come up with decent explanations for Dan's questions about why things happen on our farm, but I was caught off guard and couldn't answer.
"I'll explain when we get home," I told him, hoping to buy myself some time.
How do you answer that question? How do you explain the economics of dairy farming to a six-year-old without sounding insensitive? Or help him understand that we just don't have the physical space or the human manpower to keep them all?
I wish we could keep (almost) all of them, too. There's something about giving cows second chances and watching them become old cows that is really special, but we can't give all of them second chances and we can't watch all of them become old cows.
But we can give some of them second chances. And thanks to our little lobbyists, Lucy and Garnet have much better odds of growing old here.