A cow never changes facial expression. This 1,500 pound black and white Holstein here in one of the barns of the University of Illinois animal sciences department dairy research farm has flies crawling around the white expanse between her translucent black eyes. She looks up from her trough of dirty yellow hay and stares at me with impassiveness, a touch of guilt, submission.

It’s the resigned expression of a prisoner doing life. Cattle free in the pastures all look that way too. All on down the row here the cows have that same face. You’d think they’d have some pride about them because they are among the chosen elite. There are 300 cows here and they all have names. But only a dozen or so at a time get to be one of the famous porthole cows with gaping holes in their sides just above their left rear haunches.

This Holstein’s number is 5563. It’s written on the tab that dangles from her earring and it’s branded on the opposite haunch. Her name is Expect. Next to her is big brown Lucy. All the porthole cows are shackled by loose, flimsy neck chain and yolk to their stalls.

Expect stands nonchalantly swishing her tail as farm manager Gene McCoy removes the plug from her porthole. Around here they call the porthole the rumen cannula or the fistula. This black hole inside the porthole full of the hay of the trough in a semi-digested compost form is Expect’s rumen stomach. “As you know, cows have four stomachs,” McCoy says. He sticks his meaty hand inside Expect’s rumen and pulls out a wad of the sludge for me to examine up close. Expect just swishes and chews. She’s so much the perfect placid host for experiments that I picture the vet that carved her hole doing so without anesthetic. He’s wearing a welder’s mask and cutting a circle with a sparking chain saw while Expect swishes and chews.

A few minutes ago in another barn we saw a calf being born. “Looks like brand new,” McCoy said. “It’s all wet so it’s just been born.” Behind a black mound of cow lying in the hay in her stall was a slimy, scrawny, miniature version of herself spattered with pink blood.

The hay stuck to the calf. It’s back legs were still inside it’s mother so McCoy stepped into the stall, grabbed the calf’s contracted front legs and pulled it out the rest of the way. The mother immediately rose and began gently licking the calf as it futilely struggled to get to its feet.

This happens daily around here. McCoy may have even been the surrogate father. It’s among his duties, when a cow is in heat, to thaw out some frozen bull sperm and inseminate it through a straw.

Will the calf grow up to be a porthole cow? McCoy says it’s too early to tell. She’ll have to be at least about two and a half years old before she’s eligible. And if at that point she gave a lot of milk in her last lactation and she’s pregnant, she’ll be a good candidate. If selected, she be sent to the vet school and come back three days alter with her very own porthole, the envy of all the herd.

But anyway, back to Expect. Jim Drackley, assistant professor of nutrition, has arrived. He says, of Expect’s rumen, “It’s like a big fermentation vat.” This is where feed ferments and is prepared for entry into the next stomach, where it becomes milk. This yellow-gray compost holds the answer to many of the questions Drackley and other dairy researchers have in their quest to “make cattle more efficient converters of feed into milk.”

Drackley studies the gunk extensively. I have this image of him spending long hours perched on a high stool next to Expect, peering into her porthole, holding a lantern high with one hand and taking copious notes with the other.

False, Drackley says. It’s more laboratory analysis than observation. But sometimes he feeds the porthole cows different things and sees what happens in the rumen. For instance, he feeds them different fat solutions because one of his career goals is to figure out a way to makes cows produce milk that’s lower in saturated fat. He already can do it by running a tube from the rumen into the next stomach. “But that’s a painful technique.” He hopes to create a cattle feed that will make this all happen naturally.

They’ve been cutting holes in cows here since the 1950s. It’s a common practice at agriculture schools around the country, Drackley says. The concept goes back to the 16th century, he says, when a soldier suffered a war wound that left him with a hole in his stomach. But he survived. “We learned a lot about human digestion from him.”

A young man in a Miami Hurricanes t-shirt and high rubber boots walks by. He shovels up the brown mounds left by the cows in and around the stalls.

McCoy must see the question in my eyes. “He’s a student worker,” he answers.

The student sprinkles handfuls of lime around. “Helps absorb the urine,” he explains. Well at least he’ll have the ultimate bootstraps story about what he had to do to put himself through school with which to shame his grandchildren.

It may also be among his duties to help put a dead cow on a gurney with a fork lift. But cows don’t die here too often, McCoy says. Usually when they get to be a creaky old five or six or if they get too ill they’re sent away for rendering. Or they might be taken to the school’s meat sciences lab, McCoy says, “If they’re salvageable for meat.”

For more information on the Champaign-Urbana area, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.