A 4-H friend of mine was a Princess Kay of the Milky Way Runner-Up. She won the local contest and represented the Minnesota Dairy Association at pageants and special events. She lived on a working dairy farm, knew a lot about the animal husbandry and business aspects of dairy farming, and was cute. As a result of serving as a Princess, her likeness was carved out of a huge block of butter at the Minnesota State Fair. It was weird to see her smiling face twirling around in a huge refrigerator in the Dairy Building.
The next summer her family hosted a corn feed. They had frozen the butter-head after the fair so it was safe to eat. It was surreal to swirl butter onto a corncob from her skull. At least 200 people enjoyed a festive atmosphere. A polka band played and the party lasted into the evening. Country folk know that you have to party when the opportunity presents itself. Tomorrow may bring a hailstorm and wipe out your entire crop.
Farm life is not for the faint of heart. The movie Sweet Land is poetic but not reality based. As a child you quickly learn about the cycle of life and death. Don’t name the animals or grow emotionally attached because they can get sick and die, have to be sold, or be slaughtered for food. I had seen my grandmother decapitate chickens and her neighbor slaughter a sheep. However, the most traumatic experience was on the D’s farm. A calf had been born with a leg deformity. Three veterinarians had been brought in to determine if the leg could be broken and set right. Their prognosis was negative. The calf could hobble but once it was mature, it would not be able to walk properly with full utters.
Mr. D was heartbroken. The calf was the offspring of his favorite cow. He prepared the family that the calf would be fattened up until the malady was insurmountable. I was visiting on the late spring day when we said goodbye to calf #1708 and he led it out of the barn. Farmers strive not to kill an animal in front of their kin because the surviving animals will be terrified that they are next. Lana, her siblings and I heard a gunshot. We walked over to the building where the calf was now strung up by its hind legs. A neighbor had come over to help because Mr. D was too sad to cut apart an animal that he cared about. The smell of blood and internal organs was overwhelming. I remember a stream of steaming blood on the ground and Mr. D looking forlorn. We ate chicken that night.
Mr. D was called “touchy-feely” because he wasn’t completely detached from the herd. He deeply cared and the Holsteins were affectionate with humans. Calves would be taken from their mother within a few days of birth otherwise they would drain their mother dry of milk and never warm up to humans. The bottle-fed calves were placed in a separate section of the barn and socialized with humans. The critters were kept indoors until they were large enough to venture into a fenced yard.
Calves are very vulnerable to attack. In the early 1970s there was a huge problem with near-wild dog-packs. People dropped off their dogs in the country and the dogs would hang out together and act like wolves. The most docile canine will become a raging creature when following the lead of other dogs. The dogs would hunt together and go after sick or young animals. It got so bad that a bounty was offered to kill the dogs. Alerts on the radio station would provide sightings of the animals. Posse members would respond and shoot the dog-wolf group. Lots of farm animals were sequestered to their pens because of the dog packs. No humans were attacked but kids weren’t allowed to roam.
The D’s would make a yearly assessment of the herd. Any cow that did not produce enough milk, some females calves, and all the males were sold, a sad day indeed. Calves of productive mothers were kept to replace the cows sold. Each of the kids selected a calf to train for competition at the County Fair. They would have responsibility to feed the animal, keep it clean, tend to its needs, and teach it to be led by a harness. The D’s offered to sell me a calf for the fair. I couldn’t keep it in town and I had no way of traveling out to their farm on a daily or weekly basis. I liked to ride my bike but 20 miles was a bit egregious.
I envied kids who would show their 4-H animals at the County Fair. Huge 1,500-pound beasts next to a scrawny 90-pound kid, quite the juxtaposition. We had a dog that was too stubborn to train. My grandfather had given up his horse farm when I was 8 so I had no resources. I could have joined FFA (Future Farmers of America) and been on the Cattle Judging Team. The FFA’ers had such cool jackets and got to go on interesting trips. Alas, too late now.
Dairy Farm Tails, Part VI, most recent posting was February 20th.
© 2012 Ima B. Musing