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Breastfeeding, milking and motherhood: Lessons learned on the farm

peter mitchell The Globe and Mail

"What happens to the boy cows?" my friend's four-year-old son asked me as we toured the farm this summer.

I exchanged a glance with his mother. Though I believe it's important for kids to understand certain things about farming, I didn't think it was my place to teach someone else's toddler where veal comes from.

"On this farm, we keep baby girl cows," I told him, "and the baby boys go to a different farm."

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He looked sad, so I explained, "This farm is for milk and only girls can give milk. It's just like when you were a baby, and you drank your mom's milk."

He thought about it for a moment, then seemed satisfied and ran off to pet a day-old calf.

I'm often surprised by how many farm guests forget that cows are mammals: Only females produce milk, and they only do so after giving birth.

Bulls have a different career path. Indeed, many modern dairy farms have no bulls, as their function can be served with a monthly purchase of semen, a liquid nitrogen tank to store it and a very long glove.

Each cow on our farm wears a pedometer, as they walk twice as much when they're in heat, and voila! It's quite effective: Three calves are born every two days, all year round.

"Our farm" is a bit of a misnomer, as I no longer live on the stead near Ancaster, Ont., that my grandparents bought after fleeing Czechoslovakia just before the Second World War. At that time, Canada restricted Jewish immigration but needed workers for mines and farms. My ancestors stretched the truth and said they were farmers. They were admitted on the condition that they farm for five years, thereby receiving a haven from Hitler.

My grandfather turned out to have a gift for agriculture and husbandry, learning that if you are good to land and animals, land and animals are good to you. Two of his three children studied agriculture in university, and 73 years later, the farm continues to grow.

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Despite this heritage, my parents encouraged their children to pursue professions we loved, without pressuring us to take over the farm. Today, my father, uncle and cousin manage the operation. While I visit frequently, my Albertan husband and I have made Toronto our home.

After our son was born in March, however, I developed a new connection to the farm as I followed in the hoofsteps of the cows whose milk put me through law school. Breastfeeding my son, I was awed by the miracle of my body producing milk to nourish him. I had long taken livestock for granted, and it led to a flurry of questions for my father.

"Do the cows drink a lot of water?" I asked, finding my thirst unquenchable.

My dad smiled and confirmed that each of their 700 head drinks up to 150 litres of water a day. I better understood his stress when we go weeks without rain.

"How about food?" I wondered, as I strategically placed granola bars throughout the house.

Yup, he said, cows need high-energy and high-protein food, too. The energy expended in producing up to 70 litres of milk in a day is the equivalent of running a marathon.

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"I always seem to have more milk in one breast than the other. Does that happen with cows?" I inquired somewhat shyly.

My dad explained that it can, as each of the four teats in a cow's udder is connected to a different milk supply.

I learned that in one area, cows seem to be better designed than humans. A human mother's milk usually "comes in" about 72 hours after giving birth; until then, colostrum is all that a breastfed newborn gets.

Cows, on the other hand, produce colostrum and milk right away. I remember the bleary-eyed pain of watching my son cry those early days, convinced that he was starving. Once my milk came in he was sated, but I can't help wondering if this is a defect Mother Nature forgot to correct.

My father was also curious about our new connection. "How much pressure does your pump use?" he asked one day.

I had no idea, but looked it up and discovered that the little pump that lets us leave our son with a babysitter uses almost as much pressure as the loud milk machines hooked up to the 700-kilogram cows.

The comparison made me feel pretty tough. Then again, the farm produces enough milk each day to last the average Canadian family 18 years. When I look at the measly four ounces I pump in a sitting, I feel somewhat less robust.

I used to think that producing milk was easy, that it flowed effortlessly from animals to be used on our cereal and in baking. It turns out it's hard work. And even the sand beds that each cow lies in for resting and sleeping can't compare to the comfort of a plush rocking chair, where I sit so my son can feast every few hours.

When our son turns a year old, I will turn the milk reins over to his grandfather and the hundreds of other dairy farmers who help our children grow. And I will do so with greater appreciation for mammals and a better understanding of why my own grandfather loved his animals: They are really not so different from you and me.

Naomi Loewith lives in Toronto.

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