Atlantic Monthly

Bovine Intervention

An article on dairy training in Iraq.  September 2009 Atlantic.

SINCE MID-2009, Lockie Gary has lived part-time on a Marine base in Fallujah and led a series of seminars that aim to train insurgents’ widows to become milkmaids. On this hot June day, he is in a makeshift classroom in a rural technical school, addressing five quiet but curious students. Cows and humans have many of the same needs, Gary tells his students, and when cows are stressed, they give less milk. “The same things that cause you stress will stress your cows,” he says, and waits for an interpreter to translate. “What stresses you?”

An obese Iraqi man, who will himself be a future trainer of incipient milkmaids, gets the answers flowing. “Hot weather,” he says in English, mopping his neck. “Confined spaces and crowds,” says another student. A woman wilting in the heat under a full black niqab murmurs, “Car bombs.”

Gary, 65, spent a career as a ranch manager and later as a livestock reproductive specialist at the University of Florida, where he pioneered the use of a device that fits into a cow’s vagina and artificially induces estrus. He recently published “Can Dairy Cows Save Lives in a War Zone?,” the only article in the June edition of Farmer & Rancher newspaper with a disclaimer noting that identifying details have been omitted for reasons of military security. In it, he describes how the United States Marine Corps contacted Land O’Lakes, the Minnesota butter concern, seeking an expert who could teach Iraqi widows how to milk cows. The widows turned out not to be “cow people,” the Marines said, so they needed a cow person comfortable in a war zone to teach them how to make a living, and thus reduce the likelihood of their being lured into the growing corps of female suicide bombers.

Gary, a sturdy, silver-haired dairy farmer with 32 pairs of Angus-sired cattle of his own back home, fit the bill. During the past 10 years, working mostly through Land O’Lakes, he has led dairy training programs in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and seven other troubled countries. He is a cow man to the core, capable of mimicking dozens of specific behaviors at all stages of a cow’s life. His current students, who will fan out across the region to teach other women, and who have already taught hundreds in Fallujah, are more refined. They have mobile phones with fancy cameras, and even the woman in the niqab wears three-inch heels. Some recoil slightly when Gary lunges forward, tilts his face toward the ceiling, and imitates a calf at its first suck. Gary shows the women graphic images of stillborn monster-calves with two heads and six legs, and they recoil even more.

But animal husbandry is universal. And somehow, in a counterinsurgency where communicating with the civilian population has proved difficult, Gary’s cattle sounds and imitations of newborn calves, or calves in the late stages of Clostridial infection, make immediate sense to his students. Gary squats a little when he pretends to be a calf with the scours (that’s calf diarrhea, for the uninitiated), and the veiled women of Fallujah nod in appreciation.

His advice reduces to a simple prescription: “Cattle want what you want: to lie down at night in a clean, dry place.” And when they are traumatized or ripped from their routines, they fall ill. “Just like the U.S. Marines,” Gary says. “If you take them and put them somewhere hot and dusty, they need three hot home meals a day, or they won’t fight as well.”

Outside his seminar, marines patrol in full body armor, with weapons loaded. A permanent detachment, coincidentally known as Animal Company, lives near the technical school to keep permanent security. Today, the marines backed a heavily armored vehicle to the door and left its engine running, so an extension cord could reach Gary’s slide projector.

Despite optimistic estimates, the economics of the program remain unproved. Although local dairies can meet as little as 5 percent of demand for fresh milk, its low price (a few cents per liter) means that a single-cow operation seems unlikely to support even a widow alone. But Gary’s insistence that owners give the cows shelter and fresh water should guarantee increasing yields, and higher-quality milk should in turn command higher prices.

After two hours, Gary finishes his class, and the marines corral him, and me, back into the armored vehicles, where we are crammed together to sweat our way back to the base. The women, meanwhile, climb into their cars and ride off down the dusty road to teach others how to milk.


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