Of all the places for death and gore to be hovering in the air, it shouldn't be here. The 27-cow dairy farm of Vernon Forseth is where apple trees will soon be whitening, where the pasturelands are sucking chlorophyll under April's sun and the vials of nature's beauty are filling with springtime.

The pained eyes of Vernon Forseth -- a 54-year-old family farmer in south central Wisconsin -- give the game away. His small herd of Holsteins, whose milk is picked up every other day by a local cheese factory, had had their right cheeks branded by X marks two days before. The brutality occurred one day after a federal judge in New York ordered the Department of Agriculture to stop.

The Xs should have been Ls, for Richard Lyng, the secretary of agriculture. USDA branding orders said that the hot iron on the face was needed to prevent farmers from cheating the feds who bought the cows in a buy-out program that is part of the 1985 farm bill. Alternative methods, dye tattoos, were available but rejected.

Torturing cows -- the gentlest of any farm animal -- is despicable. A reporter for The Capital Times in Madison described the face branding in words usually reserved for descriptions of a dictator's torture chamber: When heat met flesh "a high whistle, more airy than that from a steam kettle, broke through the cackle of roosters around the barn. White smoke rose quickly, smelling like singed hair. Though few cows bellowed, several lurched, attempting to move down and away from the brand." The mutilations were the "color of a marinated steak." And probably as tasteless.

It could have been worse. A USDA bureaucrat in Washington, suspicious that some crime ring farmer might find a way to sell the X-rated cows, could have issued a regulation calling for an eye to be plucked. Then, only cows with an official Richard Lyng eye patch would be eligible for the herd buy-out program.

With too much milk flooding America, the idea is to entice farmers out of the business with federal money to have the cows slaughtered or exported. In Wisconsin, Vernon Forseth is one of 1,681 producers whose bids were accepted for 62,633 cows that now yield 785 million pounds of milk a year. Nationally, 14,000 farmers are doing in 1.5 million cows. An 8.7 percent reduction in milk is expected -- for now.

Whatever the long-term effects of the program, Wisconsin dairy farmers have chosen to stay with their animals. Fewer than 4 percent of the state's 42,000 farmers signed on. In Alabama, it was 22 percent; Georgia, 21; and California, 10.

Small enterprises like those of Vernon Forseth represent cooperation with nature, not exploitation. High silos, red barns and affection for the animals are here. Forseth has let his herd enjoy the pleasures of pasturing. A bull, not the plastic tube of artificial inseminator, is used for breeding. The names, quirks and needs of each cow are known. Forseth and his wife, both in their fifties, raised nine children on this land.

The program will mean that the large wealthy dairy operations, which can afford to stay in the game, can bet that greener pastures of profit are coming. Bleaker lives for the animals are likely. On factory farms with herds of thousands of cows that have 24-hour milk shifts, the animals never enjoy a pasture, are bred either artificially or with embryo transplants, and are confined to the narrow stalls of holding barns.

In these intensive operations -- California and Florida are the new "dairy states" that specialize in them -- the goal now is to cash in on the "genetically superior" cows. In the current Animal's Agenda, a well-written magazine published in Westport, Conn., a report details the creation by Cornell University geneticists of "the super cow." They "found that cows produce up to 40 percent more milk when given daily injections of a protein hormone which increases their feed intake." With pharmaceutical companies in heat to market the hormones, another USDA absurdity is evolving: One part of the government is reducing milk production by killing cows while another looks on as production increases by dosing cows with hormones.

Elsewhere in the mechanical barnyards, bulls are being brutalized. The Alliance for Animals, a Madison, Wis., group, seeking to end animal suffering, tells of "semen factories where prize bulls are confined and manipulated to supply the artificial insemination industry. Day after day, each bull is 'milked' of semen by teasing him into mounting a castrated male or dummy 'cow.' If the bull does not cooperate, an electro-ejaculator that delivers mild electric shocks may be used to stimulate semen production." It sells for up to $4,000 a cartridge.

It's enough to make you wonder why anyone drinks milk. It's more than enough to raise the question of how a dairy industry that sanctions hormone-dosed cows and semen-factory bulls can keep promoting the slogan "Milk is a natural."

About all that's natural in the industry are dairy farms like Vernon Forseth's. Many of them also carry a brand: X for extinction.