If you want to stroll with these heifers ...
... you've got to go to school
PUTNEY — Figi was not a model student during a recent heifer practice at The Putney School.
The young Holstein was less than interested in learning the ropes with her fellow heifers and human students under the direction of school farm manager Pete Stickney.
Instead, Figi, every bit the typical teenager, broke loose from her halter and scampered onto the lacrosse field, while her fellow heifers looked on. She was more interested in teasing the players with her rebellious personality.
It is this difference in their personalities that determines how long it takes for a student at the school, and a heifer of their choosing, to develop the synergistic relationship needed to participate in the Strolling of the Heifers, Brattleboro's annual parade of cows through the downtown and celebration of slow food, slow living and sustainable local agriculture.
Indeed, some heifers under Stickney's watchful eye do flunk out of "Stroll school." Stickney is the only animal manager the Strolling of the Heifers has had in its 18 years.
The Stroll has grown into a full weekend affair with events, seminars and a challenging mountain bike ride called the "Tour de Heifer." It's also become a non-profit organization with a mission of connecting people with healthy local food, encouraging and facilitating innovation and entrepreneurship in the farm/food sector, and supporting the development of stronger local food systems and stronger communities.
But the parade, complete with a Dairy Godmother, farm animals, tractors, clowns, floats, bands and the Big Cow of Udderly Smooth, is the weekend's beating heart.
Next weekend, on the morning of Saturday, June 8, excitement will build among parade-goers, holding black and white balloons and sporting cow masks, as they line up along Main Street and Putney Road, craning their necks for the Holstein and Jersey heifers, decked out with flower covered harnesses and hats, to stroll past. The heifers are handled by future farmers from 4-H Clubs and students from area schools, and they lead the parade.
So Stickney's job is an important one. And he's the right man for the role: Raised on a family dairy farm in Saxtons River, he's the past president of the Vermont Holstein Association. He's been farm manager for 22 years at the Putney Lower School Farm, where he and his wife Patty live. And he's a history teacher and girls' basketball coach at the school.
Strolling of the Heifers founder Orly Munzing summed up Stickney in one word: "Awesome."
"[He's] the most supportive person possible, he makes things easy, and he is so creative," Munzing said. "When I first got the idea [for the Stroll], he got it right away. He works with the veterinarians and makes sure the heifers are healthy. He's the master of the heifers."
Stickney said he remembers meeting with Munzing about starting the Strolling of the Heifers.
"It sounded like a good idea and something the kids would enjoy," Stickney said.
Age is an important factor when selecting which heifers will make the Strolling. Heifers have to be at least 3 months old and age out once they give birth. A student who strolled with a heifer as a sophomore may, as a senior, see that heifer having calves of her own.
Essa, who is graduating this year from The Putney School, participated in the Stroll in her freshman and sophomore years with a heifer named Fafita LaGrande. She remembers Fafita and the parade experience fondly.
"I loved it," said Essa. "I thought I'd be more nervous, but it was just me and my cow."
Essa met Fafita right after the cafe was born and trained her. At first, she said, Fafita was a handful: Sure, she loved to eat and loved to play, but she was skittish and undisciplined. But Fafita followed Essa's training, and by the time they went up Main Street together, she behaved perfectly.
Ledlie, a sophomore, walked with Lily in last year's Stroll. His job at the farm is to work with the heifers to prep them for handlers for not only the Stroll, but for shows such as the Guilford Fair. He starts with a rope halter and gets them used to walking and moving around with it, working as a team and never forcing the movement, then he hands them over to the handler.
"It's lovely to work with them," said Ledlie, who loves to take on a lot of responsibilities in the barn.
The work program is a requirement for graduation from The Putney School, and students work in the barns and the dining room, rotating on a trimester basis.
Stickney said the students have a great time working with the heifers for the Stroll, as it is rewarding work to see an improvement and learning all the different personalities of the heifers. The students take the responsibility seriously and sometimes are in need of a pep talk by Stickney when a cow's progress seems slow.
Rules of the road
For those who worry that the heifers are under undue stress during the parade, Stickney points out that the heifers are well screened, and that walking up Main Street is not all that different from being led around the school's quiet campus or the concrete floor of the barn.
Stickney said the parade-goers are generally respectful. And the heifers are arranged with their farm herds in groups of around six, so they're more comfortable.
One year, when Stickney's group went ahead of the group, a Jersey heifer handled by Angela Escobar voiced her objection by bellowing loudly, making him and Munzing laugh.
But handlers know what to do when heifers get stubborn. They get them back into their rhythm the same way cows communicate with one another, by giving them a nudge.
Stickney also insists that the heifers be at the front of the parade so there are no stops following bands or other entertainment. Heifers get impatient, and being up front keeps them on their natural gait.
When it rains, people are more bothered than the heifers; in fact, it is cooler for them. But they are more sensitive to the heat, so handlers walk them on the shaded side of Main Street and rest them in the shade at the Common, where a cool drink of water awaits at the end of their stroll.
The experience has a lasting benefit for the animals, Stickney explained: It's much easier to bring a heifer that took part in the Stroll to a veterinarian, because they are accustomed to human interaction.
At the Common, the heifers hang around a short while before heading back to the farm. People may meet and pet them there before venturing on to the Slow Living Expo on the Common and the American Legion on Linden Street.
"It is really fun to hang out with the kids who touch them. And they get a kick out of it," Stickney said.
Cicely M. Eastman is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Brattleboro Reformer's arts coverage.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.