My father started transitioning at around the same time as Caitlyn Jenner. It aroused the curiosity of the other farmers. Was the process difficult? How long would it take? What should they call him afterwards? They tried to hold their jokes in his presence, but it’s easy to imagine what they said behind his back. Some were supportive of his decision while others didn’t know how to take it. It was obvious they didn’t look at him the same way.
“It was time for a change,” my father would say, trying to explain himself. “It was time to go from dairy to beef.”
The Hereford and Angus crosses were kept in the old cubicle shed. Every time I called from Ireland, he updated me on the new calvings. He also made it clear that he was waiting for me to come back home to New York at Christmas to help tag them.
“Just so you know,” he said. “They’re not small.”
When the day came, there was silence as we suited up in Carhartts and knit caps; betraying the challenges ahead. In a television series, medieval soldiers would drink mead or pray to their Pagan gods before going into battle. Instead, we only slipped on our wellies and trudged through the snow.
I carried the tagger and a sleeve of numbers. Friesian dams stood with resignation as their bulky and colourful progeny shook their udders. The cubicle shed had not yet been adjusted to accommodate its new clientele, and so many of the young beefers stood in the alley, having slipped underneath the brisket railing to chew at the round bales from the other side.
I soon realised that I had made my size calculations in dairy and not in beef, and they indeed were not small.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked.
When no one answered it became clear that there was no plan.
In both medieval Irish and Nordic traditions, their best warriors were known to go into “berserker” mode, in which they were transformed by nearly inhuman fits of aggression and battle-frenzy.
That was the best way to describe my mother. She would stalk a beef calf with the halter ready, and then lunge at it when it tried to bolt. She would curse it if she missed and try to hang on if she didn’t.
“I’m 32,” I thought. “I have degrees and have been places.”
None of that had prepared me to see my middle-aged mother dragged across the concrete by a Hereford-cross.
It wasn’t pretty, but we got most of them tagged. However, whether dairy or beef, there is one universal truth in these types of tasks: the biggest animal is always the last one to get caught. My mother had done good work, but was now leaning against the railing and heavily bruised beneath the Carhartts, and my father, too, was starting to heave.
The large red heifer would be mine alone.
It leapt towards me and I lunged ahead and – for the briefest moment – we were in a man-beast embrace; fur against skin, will against will. I felt the animal inside me rise up to the challenge. My wellies gripped the concrete; the heifer’s hot breath covered my face.
It struck me then that this is what farming offered that I could not find elsewhere: the chance to square up and measure yourself and see if it is enough. All of a sudden a berserker gene sparked inside me and I took it to the pavement. There was the quick click of the ear tagg and the victory was won.
Although my father has embraced his new identity, there are still some logistics to work out. As the biblical passage goes: “When I was a dairy farmer, I thought and reasoned like a dairy farmer. When I became a beef farmer, I set aside dairy-ish ways.”
His new occupation is a whole different animal, so to speak. It’s going to take some time and adjustment, but I think they he’ll be alright.
At least until the next tagging.