The Ungloved Hand
January 30, 2014
“Did you get lucky?!”
I was a caught off guard, to say the least, considering these were the first words of my second phone conversation with Doug Butler. During our previous chat, he had requested that I keep him informed of any shenanigans my good friend Michael or I took part in over the weekend. He was always excited to hear about any “drinkin’ and chasin’ women” that may have happened. Doug has a split personality of sorts, but not in a bad way. He has divided his life into his two passions: dairy farming and dogsledding. From stories by our professor, and a few ridiculous phone conversations, Doug had been built into a legend in our minds. We wanted to get to know him and figured the best way was to work with him on his farm and learn the “Gee’s” and “Haw’s” of dogsledding. So though we may not have gotten “lucky” in the way he intended, we did feel lucky that we had been put in contact with someone who seemed so incredible.
My father taught me early on to shake with a naked hand, a demonstration of trust and respect. This concept drifted through my conscience as I first skidded my Subaru into Doug’s iced-over driveway. I arrived alone as Michael had been trapped by a winter storm and arrived later that week. When Doug came into view I saw he held a pair of gloves in his left hand. As we slipped and skated toward each other, I was only really focused on the ice. As I got the hang of crossing the frictionless deathtrap, I raised my eyes to see that he had donned the gloves. I almost felt ashamed I had thought about the courtesy of gloves and possibly marred my image of Doug, however, as we converged for the handshake, he removed the right one and enthusiastically extended his paw to me.
As my hand met the firm embrace of his gnarled and work-hardened hand I was surprised by the blue clarity and brightness of his eyes. He stood square to me, a little shy of six feet but robust and obviously powerful from years of manual labor on his farm. The farm that had been started by his grandfather, passed down to his father, and been placed totally under Doug’s control. The farm that was momentarily leaderless by my intrusion. He flashed an excited and urgent smile as he beckoned me to follow him in his 4×4 to get back to running business. His long, straw-colored hair whipped around as he turned.
As Doug and I entered the milk house, the first words an employee, Mike, greeted us with were “What did we fuck up this time?” Mike and Doug smiled a similar, knowing grin. As Mike turned back to his work I took stock of the scene. Mike and his wife Susan stood on a lowered platform, level with the udders, cleaning the cows’ teats to keep the milking surface free from infection. An all-blue jumpsuit draped over Mike’s hunched shoulders. He had worked the milking station for years. Once a cow had been cleaned, he expertly maneuvered the metallic mechanism to suck onto a heifer’s teats. The cups began emitting a sound like warm silly putty being rapidly and repeatedly pulled from its container. Sixteen heifers stood motionless with the exception of the occasional tail twitch as the mechanical suction cups noisily drew the milk from their udders. Mike and Susan walked methodically up and down the two octets of singing cups. As one cow finished, Susan removed the device and cleaned her again. Then, after shyly laughing off Doug’s jesting about eating chocolate on the job, Susan disappeared through a back door to bring a new set of cows in.
Doug leaned back, content at the operation he had worked hard to turn from vision to reality. His grandfather had built that room to milk six cows at a time; Doug’s addition to the facility was critical for his increased production while maintaining a healthy atmosphere for his animals. He mentioned that of the three dairy farms that existed in the valley, his was the only one still producing milk. Before we returned to the door, Doug looked at me and asked, “Do you hear that peace and quiet? This is how it is supposed to be.” He went on to explain the importance he places on a safe and secure environment for his animals. It worked; I stood less than a yard from a three-quarter ton cow that simply licked her lips at me as she awaited her release back into the yard.
A week later, Michael arrived back at school so we headed over to work with the livestock. This gave me an even better idea of the animals-come-first operation Doug was running. We first helped feed the calves. Each calf had to be bottle fed by hand to assure they get the proper nutrition. It would be easier to have an automated dispenser for the calves but that wouldn’t be as effective as personal attention. As I assisted with the full-floor cleanup that happens twice daily, I realized what this human contact early in life led to; I was wandering amidst colossal pets. A cow known as “skunk,” named for the white stripe down the center of her black back, nearly knocked me off my feet as she snuggled up against my chest. This is far different than some of the horrible footage in the news of abusive farms: men with electric rods zapping cows into submission and kicking lowing heifers as they try to escape down chutes. “See how we don’t have canes or any of that shit here? It’s just wrong.” Doug is proud of the atmosphere he has created in his setup. The only thing I found was gentle encouragement in the warm building; well, encouragement and a smell that seemed to go unnoticed by everyone but me.
Doug pointed to a particular cow with only half of a tail. “That one’s from the rescue herd from the organic arm. They docked her poor tail off.” This practice is exercised by roughly half of all dairy farms. The cows’ tails are removed using a saw or rubber band in order to keep them from getting in the farmer’s way and keep dirt off of the udders. Doug goes on to explain that he doesn’t feel this is fair to the cows as it leaves them vulnerable to infection and insect bites in the warmer months. A survey by the National Animal Health Monitoring System of the USDA found that farms that did not dock tails were commonly more sanitary than ones that do. This cow, along with a few dozen more, came from an organic farm in the area that was shut down because it was not meeting health standards. The herd was in such bad shape it couldn’t be effectively sold off as beef.
We moved into the adjacent room where some day-old calves rested in the warmth. “Aww look at the cute one sitting on the garden hose,” Doug said as he patted a calf’s head. “These little ones are from that same organic herd we took in recently. The heifers were so weak and thin we lost two calves this week. Just skin and bone.” Doug paused again. I couldn’t understand why the cows would be in such bad condition. I had always held this image in my mind of organic farms having some joyous hippies massaging their cows as they wander through flowering meadows.
The truth is no fairyland, and it all comes down to money. Doug’s cost for feed per day per cow is $4.30 while the average organic cow with these generous food rations would cost around $12 per day. The reason the organic feed is so much more expensive is simple supply and demand. The organic dairy industry grows 20% every year while organic grain production only grows 8% each year. With the average cow living five years, the cost difference accumulates to a difference of ~$14,000 per cow over its lifespan. This is why Doug had to rescue the organic cattle; they had been malnourished due to food rations that were too small. Doug anticipated the process of healing and rejuvenating them to the point where they would produce milk again would take quite some time. The decision to take in the cows was not a financial move, the cows would be eating Doug’s feed but not reciprocate the loss by providing milk to sell for a while. “I’m off to a meeting soon to see if I can get compensated for the rescue herd.” Doug took a gamble with these cows, but it looked like he felt it was worthwhile by his reaction to the cows’ improvement.
Doug was always internally debating about the logistics of running his farm. “I have another organic herd coming in possibly. That will of course mean more feed to buy and more space to clear out.” Doug understands that there is a popular movement toward organic milk production, but he knows that the costs exceed what he can afford. It often now costs more to produce organic milk than it is worth, even with organic milk at $6.59 a gallon compared to $3.39 for regular. I asked about what can happen to cows that don’t recover, “we had a heifer last weak that was too weak for us to put her through the milking process, so she went to McDonalds.”
When Michael and I returned again to the farm, Doug beckoned for us to hop in his truck to tour the surroundings and meet the hired help. Each employee we crossed greeted us with a smile and wave; even the man “shovelin’ shit” into a settling pond. As we drove between the house and farm a fuel truck practically ran us off the road. Luckily, the driver was a friend trying to get Doug’s attention. Doug jokingly opened with the proposition that “we’re thinkin’ about trackin’ down some women” and that we could use a hand. The men discussed how work had been. “Got up at six am and worked till five, then drove till two am to pick [the new truck] up,” the man explained. As we pulled away, Doug exclaimed “crazy old bastard.” I could tell you had to be truly close with Doug to earn a title of respect like that. We continued our drive, Doug pointed out the various neighbors he had known since birth.
“That family used to keep their cows beneath their house.”
“That is where the doctor used to live, died a few years ago.”
“A girl around your age lives there, she comes and feeds calves for me in the summer. She’s a little hottie. Smart too!”
“Oh, he is a little different, but still a really hard worker. Up at quarter to three every day.”
Each farm had a family with a defining story that was followed with something along the lines of: “they are really great people.”
“Ho, Caser!” Doug yelled at Casey, his second in command on the farm, as we pulled up. “What’s the matter?” Casey stepped off the tractor like a medieval knight dismounting his horse; he even looked the part. Over six feet tall, barrel chested, and red bearded, Casey is a workhorse, and Doug loves it. However, that moment was different. Casey brought up the sad news that “two calves died last night.” “No shit.” Doug replied in a solemn but agitated tone. Casey continued, “one was that real good lookin’ one from last week.” The calf had gotten her head suck under a corral and died of internal gas buildup. Casey retook the “reins” of the tractor and sped off to feed the cows their daily ration. Doug watched him drive away, “yeah, he will be a bit bothered about them calves. But he sure is a great worker, never stops moving.” As Casey drove out of sight we wandered into a storage barn to find another worker leaning against a doorframe.
Doug: What do you think Jimmy?
Doug: You are thinking?
Jimmy: Trying to a little bit…
Doug: I know you’re scared of it
Jimmy: Normally it gets me in trouble… How did the dog race go anyways?
Doug: I got the shit kicked out of me!
As Michael and I laughed about the exchange, Casey returned. Casey looked to me and asked if we had gone out with the dogs yet. “Them are crazy bastards.” Casey had broken his back in a dogsledding accident a decade ago and still doesn’t race as much as he used to. Doug turns to Michael, “we were crazy fuckers then, we would tie ourselves to our sleds!” Doug seemed to get riled up at the simple mention of dogs. It also reminded him that he had some work for us over in the dog yard.
When we got to the house, we were able to see the extent of Doug’s passion for dog sledding. Michael and I helped survey his nearly 50 dogs for their rabies checkup. In the same way that we had gotten to know Doug’s employees, we got to know the dogs. Each had its own personality and comfort. Some, like the jet-black powerhouse Amigo, would hop right up onto you while others, like Abby the timid, spotted one, would hunker down out of reach in her home. Once the tour and dog survey had been completed, Doug told us he had a special treat for us before we headed back to campus. As we entered the small single level home Doug lives in, his wife Debbie greeted us at the door. Doug had warned us that he had been in the trouble with her for a few weeks. He had had two unexpected puppies and it was too cold out for them to stay outside. Evidently they had been stinking up the basement. Doug introduced us and went about filing the dog paperwork for rabies shots then disappeared behind a door.
Though her introduction had been warm, she seemed to suddenly remember that she was supposed to be mad at Doug. She once again failed to maintain her anger when he came up from the basement with a culprit under each arm. Puppies tend to be cute, but there is something about Doug’s husky/pointer puppies that especially brought out the suppressed femininity in the group of men in the house that day, especially as we raised the pitches of our voices. Debbie recommended that we take the puppies around campus to get them socialized. Michael made the point that it would do an even better job of getting the two of us socialized. Doug hooted with laughter, he would never miss out on a tale of a young man’s pursuit of young women. As we left the house to return to the car, Doug exclaimed with a smile “Well, I didn’t piss her off, but dammit I tried.”
Doug always made a big fuss about his dogs but he especially brightened around the puppies. He named theses two puppies in honor and dishonor of two people very close to him, Lacey and Ben. “You see, Lacey is just a terrific gal. Confined to a wheelchair but so sweet. And well, Ben is a bit of a pain in my ass, and so is the puppy, so it only seemed fitting. He will hate me for that.”
Our next visit was far more action oriented, it was to be a time to see why Doug loved his dogs so much. Doug called us out of class for a quick run on the ATV. Michael and I arrived to utter chaos. Dogs screeched and barked with excitement as Doug and his mechanic Rob screeched and barked orders at us to hitch the dogs. Normally passive or submissive dogs were transformed into ballistic rockets with surging energy. We frantically readied the rig and took off on the training run. As the dogs loped along at 20 miles-per-hour, Doug and I discussed his plans for the near future. Doug was constantly debating about what dogs to use in each of his teams. “See Prancer up from? I’m going to train him to run lead.” At the next stop we switched Prancer into the lead. The first couple miles were nearly immaculate. However, when we stopped a second time, he caused a couple tangles and was moved back to his starting position. Doug was still astounded at Prancer’s performance. “I’ve never had a year-old dog run like that, I’ll put him with my veteran leader Gunner and make him a super-dog.”
We pulled the team back into the dog yard and unhitched the hounds. Every dog had a specific house and tether, and Doug knew the whole maze of shelters like the back of his hand. Still high on the excitement of the run, Michael, Doug, and I went about feeding the dogs. We discussed how fun it had been and that there were real races coming up soon. Doug invited us to come along and gain experience with the sled and possibly run a race.
We stood in a tight triangle on that same icy driveway between his house and my car, darkness falling and the cold sinking in, we slowly stopped talking as the dogs finished their meals and settled into their houses. “Thank you boys for all the help with the cows and with those dogs.” We knew it would be a week or more before we would see Doug again, and that when the spring came we wouldn’t have as much time to spend on the farm. As we turned to head to our respective homes Doug placed his hand on my shoulder, and without a second thought we embraced for a quick bear hug. I slid my car back onto the pavement, knowing just how lucky we were to have forged a relationship with such a generous man.