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Saturday, April 5, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Lazy cow sex and the dairy queen


Inside a barn in Hokkaido, I sat down with a 47-year-old woman named Mrs. Takahashi and talked about sex. Cattle sex, that is. Of course, the closest thing I've seen to it is a pregnant cow, so I wanted to get a little more information as my interest in this subject was mounting.

News photo
Mrs. Takahashi leans on a fork in her Hokkaido dairy farm while the writer tries to blend in with the barn's residents. PAUL HOOGLAND PHOTO

I had arrived at Mrs. Takahashi's barn that morning and she kindly offered to show me her stock. As we walked down the aisle of dairy cows, I have to admit I was a bit amazed. Just look at those udders! I thought, feeling like a 10-year-old on a school field trip. They looked heavy, like bowling balls with the finger holes turned inside out.

"Our best cows give 30 liters of milk per day, but the average is more around 20 liters," Mrs. Takahashi said. "That's between two milkings a day, 12 hours apart."

Every 12 hours? Can cows tell time? I wondered, noticing that none of them was wearing a watch. A cow watch would be easy enough to make. With only two milking times a day, 12 hours apart, a cow's watch would only have to have one number on it.

"Wow, that cow has six teats!" I said, rudely pointing at the large ballooning udder of the Swiss Brown with two extra teats.

"Oh yes, some do," said Mrs. Takahashi "But only four can be used for milking."

I wondered how to delicately approach the subject of, you know, well, I'll just come out and say it: breeding!

After all, this is a dairy, and for a cow to continue giving milk, it must have a calf.

"We don't have any bulls here," she said while looking wistfully out the barn window. "We've just never had any luck with bulls." This was obviously a sensitive subject. I sensed a broken heart.

"No, now, we use artificial insemination," she said. Wow, he was that bad, was he?

"Who does the insemination?" I asked, hoping I wasn't being too nosy.

"We're not certified to do it, so we bring in a veterinarian." A certified inseminator, hmmm. Imagine 140 cows all on the rhythm method! They must have a big room with a very large wall chart for recording temperatures and "cowculating" ovulation times.

"Cows only become fertile every three months. So it's very important to make sure they get pregnant on the first insemination. If not the first, it usually works the second time."

The rest of our conversation about cow sex I can't reprint here, mainly because there is nothing to print. Not much smooching goes on between cows because as it turns out, cows don't really have sex. Or at the very least, you could call it lazy cow sex.

The sperm is ordered, delivered and stored in straws. All the straws may be from the same bull. Now you know why cows look so similar — they very likely share the same father.

And it's not a bad system for cow couples living the tanshin-funin life. Honey, could you just send me some of your sperm via takkyubin? I'll let you know when the baby is born!

It struck me how this farm was a microcosm of a happy Asian life. A loving mother looking after her girls, very protective of them, even arranging their partners for them.

Mrs. Takahashi became the grandmother, as she lived with the girls through their first pregnancy and the following ones helping to feed the calves and clean the barn. She'd serve the meals and look after the growing family.

And all the girls happily ate their oats and hay, and spent long hours pensively chewing their cuds. They were the merriest cows I had ever seen! Not one complained or misbehaved. Indeed, they were all in a satisfied "moood."

Among this warm and fuzzy environment, unfortunately, I asked the fatal question: "If the cows don't get pregnant after a few times, what happens to them?"

"Niku ni narimasu," she said, matter-of-factly. (They become meat).

This was one of the more frank conversations about infertility I had ever had, and reminded me how cold life can be. A very cold cut indeed.



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