It was springtime, and we were reaching the end of our winter’s hay supply. The pastures were not yet dry enough for the cows to graze, so we hoped that what we had would hold out until they were. Hay prices had nearly doubled during the winter, and if we had to buy more hay, our costs would exceed our income from the milk.
At this critical time, we made a terrible discovery. The tarps that had been covering the last portion of the hay had frayed, and had leaked snow melt and spring rains through into it. My father assigned me to see if the cows would eat any of it.
I dug through the stack, but found almost all of it to be stale and musty. Still, I took a portion of it and put it in the cows’ manger. The cows turned their noses up at it, and tossed it around a bit, but would not eat it. Their milk production suffered from the attempt.
My father decided we would have to bite the bullet and buy better hay. The problem was that the bad hay was in the way. My dad suggested that I haul it to our old feedlot until the fields dried so we could spread it out to be tilled under.
Arriving home late from school, I only had time to haul one pickup load. The fence around the old feedlot was dilapidated, so I quickly patched it. I wasn’t too worried about the cows eating the hay, but I wasn’t anxious to have them make a mess that would be harder to clean up later. When I finished, I sloppily slapped the gate up, and headed on my way to milk.
The next morning, I had a surprise waiting for me. The cows had knocked down the gate into the feedlot, but instead of making a mess, they had slicked up every last bit of the hay. When I told my father, he was as surprised as I was, and questioned whether I had accidentally moved the wrong hay. I reassured him that I hadn’t.
After some thoughtful consideration, he said, “Let’s try something. Let’s take a load of the bad hay, and put half of it in their manger and half in the old feed lot. Then we’ll leave the gate so they can knock it down and see what happens. ”
Usually I did the feeding alone, but Dad was curious enough about the situation that he helped me. We did as he said, and in the evening we found the bad hay in the manger had barely been touched. However, the feedlot hay was another story. The cows, as expected, had knocked down the gate, and they had cleaned up every last bit of it that was in there. I couldn’t understand why, and I asked my dad about it.
“It seems that when the hay is denied the cows, it makes it just that much more desirable to them, ” he replied. “So even though they normally wouldn’t touch it, the challenge of eating what they think is off limits makes it sweeter. ”
“Why don’t we just stack the hay in there and leave the gate open? ” I asked.
He smiled. “It wouldn’t work. If they thought we wanted them to eat it, they wouldn’t want it. ”
I rolled my eyes. “Cows are so stupid! ”
Dad laughed. “Actually, we humans are quite similar. There is a phrase, ‘the forbidden fruit is the sweetest’, meaning we want what we aren’t suppose to have. ”
We never did have to buy more hay that spring. Each night and morning I stacked a load of the bad hay in the old feedlot, then carefully set the gate so it looked solid, but could easily be knocked down. The cows slicked up the hay, and their milk production never suffered.
I guess forbidden fruit still makes good milk.
Daris Howard is a syndicated columnist, writer, playwright and teacher.