Jeffrey Perso, “The Problem with Cows”

Cows are a big problem in L, Doctor John Voltaire admitted, writing in his scientific journal. Not that the good people of L didn’t love a well-seasoned beef roast or medium rare steak or greasy, artery clogging cheeseburger. During the Winter Holidays they even served plates of raw ground chuck mixed with onions, steak tartar, it was called (placed between two crackers it was known as a “cannibal sandwich”). Nor was the problem with cows connected in any way to the ethically questionable removal of horn tissue from young calves before it attached to the skull by burning it out with heat or chemicals, or digging it out with hot knives. The good people of L well knew that the removal of horns protected farm workers and other animals from getting gored.

Certainly the problem with cows was not connected in any way to the fact that the cows in L were said to change color three times each day, the Holstein’s black and white patterns now turquoise and amethyst, now blood orange and tourmaline, or the gold-haired Guernsey now polished silver, now lapis lazuli (some argued it was because of the light, others that it was because of the fog, still others that it was because of the rising and setting sun and the fog, light refracting through the fog as through a prism).

And it wasn’t that the citizens of L had religious objections to eating the flesh of cows; that somehow the souls of deceased spouses or siblings or other long lost and fondly missed and remembered family members had returned, reincarnated, and they now inhabited the bodies of mooing bovines, and so the problem with cows was that they were allowed to wander the streets of L, stopping traffic, populating public parks, flower beds crushed beneath hooves.

Nor was the problem with cows among the healthy, happy people of L connected in any way to lactose intolerance; what was more satisfying than a cold glass of whole milk, or a large bowl of vanilla ice cream, or a wedge of aged, white cheddar cheese? All foods dairy was desired.

Yes, Doctor John Voltaire reflected, writing in his scientific journal, it was not upon ethical or dietary or religious grounds that the problem of cows was founded. The good citizens of L had difficulty knowing the difference between a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Muslim; although they did know the difference between a Holstein and a Guernsey, regardless of its color. And the hungry carnivores of L had long grown accustomed to the salivating stink and sound of dinner and death birthing from the stockyards and slaughterhouse—no issues there—and high levels of dairy-induced cholesterol were easily treated with Crestor or Lipitor.

To be objective, Doctor John Voltaire numerically recorded in his scientific journal, the problem with cows originated with the increase in the number of farms milking more than 700 cows—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—some milking as many as 2,000 twice daily. An entire way of life had passed away, Doctor Voltaire thought, remembering how his Uncle Clifford had milked 20 cows, all by hand. He sat on a three-legged stool and pulled the cows teats with his strong hands, the milk streaming into the aluminum bucket held between his knees. Then he walked to the milk house and emptied the milk into a milk can. Between the morning and evening milking he cleaned the barn. With a shovel he scooped out the gutters and pitched the manure into a wheelbarrow, which he then rolled up a board plank and dumped into a manure spreader. But no-one milked small herds by hand any more. Suction cups slipped over teats, the milk flowed through tubes into refrigerated cooling tanks, and the manure was cleaned from gutters not by hand but by machines.

The small, independent subsistence farmer had ceased to exist. Where once in a county coulee there might have been 10 farms each milking 20 head, there was now one factory farm. At the same time the number of cows in the county of L had grown in the last decade from 35,000 to over 100,000, producing manure equivalent to that expelled by one million humans—or more than four times the population of L. As one Common Council member put it, the newspaper reported, Doctor Voltaire remembered, writing in his scientific journal: “A cow’s a cow, and they all poop and they all pee. Often and a lot.” This is especially a problem in spring.  In warm weather manure seeps into the ground, but during winter, when the soil is frozen, the manure cannot be absorbed, and so it accumulates, piles up, creating a run-off problem when the weather warms and the snow melts, a tide of yellow, urine-capped waves of manure surging across pastures, rolling mountains of manure avalanching into streams, rivers and lakes. Manure is also the source of oxygen-deprived dead zones in local water bodies, Doctor Voltaire knew. And under “right” conditions, manure can soak into the aquifers from which drinking water is drawn. In fact, last year 132 wells, nearly 39 percent of the wells tested in the county contained bacteria, nitrates, or both, that exceeded state and federal public health standards. The land just can’t take it anymore, Doctor Voltaire admitted, it is in revolt.

Of course not everyone saw the problem with cows from the same perspective. Last year the Common Council, for example, publicly financed a project to convert manure into electricity, potentially saving the people of L hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs. And so for $13 million the County of L purchased a manure digester, “the first of its kind in the state,” boasted Mayor Rockton at the time. But there were “hiccups along the way,” as the Mayor later put it; the digester did not digest, electricity was not produced, $4 million disappeared, and the project has been referred to the state Justice Department for prosecution.

David Eckert saw the problem with cows as a way to wealth. His company, Eckert Ag Services, pumps manure from CAFOs onto farm fields. “You might not like the way I smell after work,” he told his wife as he stepped from the shower into a haze of talcum powder hurled his way. “But this is go-like-hell time; it’s what pays for our family vacations to Florida.” It’s not easy work, either. In fact, it’s quite dangerous. Eckert estimates that he and his crew handle up to 60 million gallons of manure over a six-week period. And just last week two of his employees slipped on a urine spill and fell 25 feet into a manure pit. It took rescue workers with ropes and life preservers nearly 30 minutes to lift the employees to safety, during which time they lowered oxygen tanks and masks to the feces and straw-caked men because if the manure didn’t kill them by clogging their noses, mouths and throats, then the inhaled methane gas would. “This is the Major Leagues of Merde,” Eckert boasted to his Chanel-wearing wife, “and I’m batting cleanup. We can’t just pour it on—we’re going to have to be on top of our game.” And with Milk Source Holdings proposed new 4,200 cow milking facility located just beyond L’s city limits, it looks like Eckert and his crew won’t be smelling like roses any time soon. They’re all going to Disney World!

Yes, Doctor John Voltaire concluded, writing in his scientific journal, the problem with cows was not religious in nature or diet related, nor did it have anything to do with the humane treatment of animals or the thrice changing palate of colored cattle foraging in the feed lot. The problem with cows was that the good, industrious, meat and milk loving people of L were almost literally drowning in shit.


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