Are Cows Overrepresented in Dairy Barns?

I am descended from dairy farmers.  My forefathers were men who lived way up north, hard by the Canadian border, and who rose each morning at 4:00 a.m. to pull on their boots, go out to the barn, and do the milking. Those Wisconsin barns could be pretty cold on a January morning, but that didn’t make them smell any better.

My father left the farm and got and education, so our family has been going to the dogs ever since.  But when I was a boy, I spent considerable time getting underfoot in cold Wisconsin dairy barns, and one thing I noticed is that, when it came to the animals, cows were really overrepresented.

There weren’t only cows, of course.  There was usually at least one dog, and always quite a few cats, and sometimes down at the end, in a separate room, a couple of pigs.  But mostly it was cows—big black-and-white Holsteins, and a couple of Jersey’s for the cream.

So, it looks to me as if my grandpa and uncles might have been just a little bit biased when it came to deciding just what animals they let into their barns.  The collection of animals that they housed certainly did not reflect the general animal population of Wisconsin, or even the population of animals boasting those all-important mammary glands!

In fact, those cats were allowed in the barn, and kept happy with saucers of warm milk, on the condition (or at least the expectation) that they would display a violent prejudice against mice.  It was up to the dog to deal with the rats that could be heard furtively rustling in the recesses of the corn crib.

Those cold Wisconsin dairy barns just weren’t inclusive places.  Flies were, of course, plentiful, especially in summer, but to flies those barns were not at all welcoming.  Attractive, to be sure, but not welcoming.  Viscid coils of flypaper hung near every doorway, their curls peppered with desiccated carcasses, and from time to time a man would come and assail those who had escaped the flypaper with a deadly fumigant.

I understand that the songwriter Marty Haugen was from the neighboring state of Minnesota, but when he wrote his hymn “All are Welcome,” he could not have been thinking of a dairy barn.

Or maybe that is what he was thinking about, only not in a good way.  The “house” that Haugen’s hymn calls us to build is, in fact, the antitype of those old dairy barns.

Let us build a house where love can dwell

 and all can safely live,

[Tum, tee tum, tee tum, tee tum]

All are welcome, all are welcome,

all are welcome in this place.

Now I feel pretty confident in saying that no Wisconsin dairy farmer ever stood at the door of his barn and sang those lines to the rising sun.  The Wisconsin farmers I knew, all of them decent and God-fearing, would have sung something more like this

Let us build a barn where cows can dwell

 and I can safely milk,

[Tum, tee tum, tee tum, tee tum]

Cows are welcome, cows are welcome,

cows are welcome in this place.

I’m not sure that I entirely understand the last verse of Haugan’s hymn, and what I do  understand strikes me as pretty ripe, but I am once again confident in saying that it does not capture the essential Weltanschauung of my forefathers.  Here’s Haugen

Let us build a house where all are named,

their songs and visions heard

and loved and treasured, taught and claimed

as words within the Word.

[Tum, tee tum, tee tum, tee tum]

let this house proclaim from floor to rafter.

All are welcome, all are welcome,

all are welcome in this place.

And now here’s something more suited to those good men who rose each morning at 4:00 a.m. to pull on their boots, go out to the barn, and do the milking

Let us build a barn where cows are safe,

and cats, a dog or two,

but rats and mice are hunted down

so there are just a few.

[Tum, tee tum, tee tum, tee tum]

let this barn proclaim with coils on rafters.

Flies aren’t welcome, flies aren’t welcome,
flies aren’t welcome in this place.

12 thoughts on “Are Cows Overrepresented in Dairy Barns?

  1. Pingback: Are Cows Overrepresented in Dairy Barns? | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Are Cows Overrepresented in Dairy Barns? | Reaction Times

  3. Judging by all the mooing I hear, cows might be over-represented in humanities faculties, too. On the other hand, those faculties give no milk. Maybe it’s a case of cow-sized mice. That would explain a good deal. I shall be investigating further.

  4. From a fellow Badger, I very much appreciate this poignant meditation.

    This is petty of me, but I grew up close enough to the Twin Cities in northwest Wisconsin that almost as soon as I was old enough to sense its urban influence on the pure and pastoral surroundings of my state I began to despise the metro area and the state from which it originated. Thus I feel still a little naughty pleasure to learn that Marty Haugen was a Minnesotan…such nice songs!

    Apologies to any Minnesotans reading this. My animosity has softened over the years at least.

    • Funny. As a Hoosier who visited Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois a number of times – and, therefore, an impartial observer – I always had the impression (from Milwaukee in its proximity to the hells of Chicago, and from Madison) that it was Minnesota that was the purer state of the two.

      • In retrospect it sounds as though your observations were more trustworthy than mine! Though I’m tempted to blame your comparatively unfavorable impression of Wisconsin on Chicago bleeding over to the Milwaukee area. But I have no beginning of excuse for the Petri dish of liberalism that is Madison.

      • Although I still have extended family in the state, we moved away forty years ago. Still, in Wisconsin as elsewhere, the state is not the relevant scale at which to look for geographical patterns How a state “swings” in elections is of course politically important, but “blue” states always have red enclaves, and vice versa. Madison is to Wisconsin as Austin is to Texas, with Milwaukee being their Houston or Dallas. In both cases Madison-Milwaukee, and Austin-Houston-Dallas are slowly gaining an irreversible preponderance over the Hicks in the Sticks.

  5. “Those Wisconsin barns could be pretty cold on a January morning, but that didn’t make them smell any better.”

    I certainly do not find the smell of a byre or stable unpleasant (I usually visit my own stable, with five horses and two ponies at about 5.30 am) Now, for a really rank, acrid smell, try the London Tube or the Paris Metro during the Rush Hour; only those whose senses have been numbed into insensibility by urban living could endure it on a daily basis.

    • The manure of grazing animals is not normally unpleasant; although I seem to recall something about anaerobic decomposition making it worse. My cousins and I used dried cow pies as bases when we played baseball–one had to beware of cow pies that remained moist at the core!


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