Larry, one of my most reliable hay customers, has been doing business with me for a few years. We get along great for several reasons. One of them is that we both have tremendous respect for genetics and the impact it can have on production numbers. According to a couple of dairy nutritionists who are familiar with Larry's herd, his cows' milk production ranks the herd easily in the top five herds in Iowa.
A couple of weeks ago, Larry called with his usual order. He needed a load of big squares at the farm where he milks. I loaded the big squares, but there wasn't enough time to get them delivered without interfering with Larry's evening milking schedule. I would take them in the morning. No big deal. I didn't even call Larry to set up a time. We have become so familiar with one another that we know what time works best.
As I pulled into his yard the next morning, things were different. There were multiple trucks in the yard. What with our regular blizzards and mountains of snow, parking space was already at a premium. Larry's yard had a pickup and livestock trailer, two other pickups, a big delivery truck and a guy in a station wagon. That made for awfully tight quarters to pull in with a Ranch Hand with a load of big square bales on behind. I barely made it off the road before I ran out of room and had to park. Then I came back to the action in the yard.
It was Photo Day at Larry's operation. Several of his high-powered cows were being photographed for a variety of purposes. A couple of them were going to be sold, so they needed flattering photos for the sale bill and the auction catalog. A couple other cows had sons in A.I. studs (the company/facility where A.I. bulls are housed and, um, harvested periodically). The A.I. companies want to show pictures of what some hot prospect's daughters look like, so they go to farms with excellent cows and take pictures of them. "Here is what your progeny will look like if you use this particular bull on your cows." It's like the Sears catalog for bovine romance.
Larry told me it could take awhile to finish with pictures, so I may have to wait. I decided to wait, watch and learn. It was about 11:00 in the morning. How long could this take? Little did I know . . .
You think the cover of Glamour or Vogue is an assembly of prissy, preening females who are all blow-dried, duct-taped and Maybellined beyond recognition by Annie Leibovitz to get that one special shot? You should see what guys in overalls do with Holsteins.
First of all, it's a matter of setting the stage. Your Holstein needs to look like she's in the right spot, against the right background. That requires a strategically placed 2x4 frame and a couple of rubber mats. Said frame is placed near the front of the cow. Bessy is then . . . OOPS! She's a hipster model, not a schoolmarm. Besi is led up to the frame and her front feet are placed on top of it. This makes her appear to be standing somewhat uphill, which is apparently flattering. Depending on how she looks, more rubber mats may be added under her feet to give her "more altitude."
Next, she needs to be standing in a bed of landscaped material. Wood chips? Nope. Corn silage! It actually looked like wood chips when I walked up to the scene, but then I realized it was corn silage. How quaint. How practical. How cost-effective.
Now you need to convince Besi to stand in exactly the right spot. That means her feet need to be positioned just right. She doesn't care for adjustments. Her tail needs to be positioned just right. She doesn't care for adjustments. Her head needs to be positioned just right. She doesn't care for adjustments. How to put this delicately? The assets of milk production need to be positioned just right. That, she didn't mind. What a diva! How do you make your cow look like a high-producing cow that is bursting at the seams with calcium goodness? Don't milk her at the usual 5:30 morning milking for a 10:00 photo shoot. Next thing you know, in a herd like Larry's, she is actually right on the edge of bursting at the seams. Besi had turned into Anna Nicole. I was feeling like Howard Stern . . . with or without the K.
Take a good look at that topline on Besi. Have the guy holding the halter adjust it slightly so as to bring her head up slightly. That changes muscle position and straightens out her back and her neck. Better yet, have another guy lightly press down on the muscles around her hip bones. It was like a mini-Shiatsu massage. Besi relaxed and changed her profile within a second.
Snap the photo and you're done.
The above account was an ideal situation. Did I mention I was there? Ideal and I have never met. Haven't even been in the same area code at the same time in years.
Let's start from the beginning again. The photo session actually started inside the barn. That's where the real work began. First, you have to do some serious work with a brush and a bucket of warm, soapy water. Gotta scrub Besi down well to make her all purdy. Next, it was time for the clipper. We're talking major hair makeover here. Everything must be clipped, primped and brushed.
Why do people in the cattle business spend more time working on their animal¹s hair than anything else? Nobody eats the hair. We are supposedly in the food production business, not the bovine bouffant business.
The guy with the clipper suddenly grabbed a roll of gauze. I thought maybe he nicked Besi and was doing some triage. Nope. He didn't like the looks of Besi's topline. He took a piece of gauze about 18 inches long and proceeded to lay it along Besi's tailhead at a slightly different taper than what nature had given her. He then combed the hair on her tailhead and clipped it with a scissors so that it lined up perfectly with the gauze. From a side view and a distance, it appeared Besi had a perfectly level topline. In reality, she had some community-college-auto-body work done to her.
But there still needed to be a bit more. That's when the aerosol cans came
out. First it was white spray paint. Besi's newly installed topline was touched up with white paint to make it match the rest of her hair. Then the big splotches of black on her side were touched up with a glaze of black paint to make them shine a bit better. Finally, in what was obviously a nod to fashion over function, the blue ear tags on the back side of Besi's ears were spray painted black. Sure, they provided her true identity, but this was modeling. That shade of blue SO totally clashed with the black of her ears! A couple spurts and her ears and their jewelry were all black.
Now that the contestant was prepped, it was time to walk backstage and make our way to the spotlight. As Ross led Besi down the alley, he had to make a right turn to head for the door. I was already walking through the milk room to get the gate opened for them coming out of the barnyard. I opened it and waited. No Ross. No Besi. Then I heard a loud thud inside the barn. I waited. Still no Ross. Still no Besi. I waited some more. Then I went back inside the barn to see what was taking so long.
For all practical purposes, Besi fell off her high heels. No, she wasn't actually wearing them. (I didn't dare mention that, because, you know, they'd probably get her some!) She just lost her footing as she rounded the corner and fell flat on her side. Lucky for her, she fell on her left side. Photo Day featured all shots taken of the right side of each beauty pageant contestant. A quick touch-up was done on Besi's right side. The left side was a mess, like a kid who fell in a mud puddle at recess. The crew went to work in no time flat and had Besi's right side looking photogenic again. They made their way out to the stage for another try.
You know how photographers always try to get the model's attention in order to capture just the right shot? Holsteins don't respond like supermodels. It takes a bit more work with a Holstein. Creative cusses that these guys are, they spared no expense. One guy walked over to the delivery truck and got in the back. He came out with sort of a sheer blanket of some kind of camouflage material. He proceeded to hold this camo mesh in front of him and made sounds like a monkey for a little while. Then he switched to mimicking a wild turkey. Cool. This had suddenly turned into an Animal Planet episode of some kind. It was Marlin Perkins and Tarzan all in one show! The combination caught Besi's attention at one point and she perked up her ears. Mannie Leibovitz snapped away and got the shot he wanted. Nothing captures the attention like some well-disguised fowl. It's common knowledge.
No, it turns out, he didn't get the perfect shot. Besi's tail was in a bad position. That's when I realized one detail in the style-over-substance campaign I had missed. While they were brushing Besi's tail to maximize its poofiness, they tied a length of fishing line onto it within the poofiness. It blended in quite nicely. When Besi was positioned on the platform and her muscles were properly relaxed, Ross attached one end of the fishing line to a long piece of metal. The metal strap was about two feet long. It was attached to a handle similar to a concrete trowel. The long strap iron was bent ninety degrees and then again ninety degrees where it attached to the handle. At the end of the long piece of metal was a notch. The fishing line was tied into that notch. Ross then tightened the line and placed the long strap into the corn silage bed. The handle was then two feet behind Besi and out of frame of the camera. By moving the handle side to side or forward and back, Ross could alter the position of Besi's tail without having to touch her. Mannie Leibovitz wanted the tail at a different angle for the picture. He felt Ross had been off by an inch. An inch! Gotta try again. Off by an inch makes us looks like amateurs.
Things weren't terribly tense right then, but we suddenly went to Def-Con 4 and everyone scrambled like mad!!! You know how you get a lot of milk out of a cow? You put a lot of feed into her. You know what happens when you give a cow a lot of feed and then take her out of her normal setting and try jockeying her around for a half hour to get a picture? Think about it. Cows get nervous. You know what happens then? Cows have a reaction. Perhaps you've read about it on a very concise bumper sticker. One result of that reaction tends to grow really good corn if you spread it on a field. Everybody all at once started screaming, "Bucket! Bucket! Ross! ROSS!!! THE BUCKET!!! THE BUCKET!!!"
There was a designated bucket for just such an incident. Ross's job was to position the bucket in Besi's southern hemisphere so as not to cancel out all the work of getting Besi primped. Sadly, Ross did not instantly drop his tail levitation duties to handle Bucket Patrol. The crew got the brushes, the water, the soap, the paper towels, the spray paint and everything else and returned Besi to her previous state of cleanliness . . . and continence.
By the time we were finished with all five participants for the portion of the day I was present, it was 1:55 in the afternoon. Yep, three hours had passed while I stood around and learned all there is to learn about getting just the right picture. I had one question before I left. How often did they do this throughout the year and what backgrounds did they use at the different times of the year?
Turns out that backgrounds don't matter. For $25 per picture, Mannie Leibovitz puts the cow on a totally phony background of some lovely wooded lake scene or a lush green pasture. I mean, c'mon, this isn't the American Museum of Photography. This is the cattle business.