My dad loved to tell a well-worn story that went like this: “Old Dandelion came up behind and sniffed the back of your head. Out came her long tongue and licked up the back of your hood. You were only about two feet tall and your little body was so stiff, packed into your snowsuit, you tipped over into the snow. Dandelion just stood there looking at you. I stood you up again. It was the funniest thing I ever saw.”
Dad only kept six or eight cows and they became like big sisters. We walked among them, pushing them around and they always moved for us. When one had a calf, we were happy but we knew some had their grumpy side and stayed out of their way.
We knew which ones would hide in the pasture while giving birth and who would go to the edge of the herd near the barn. Sometimes a new mother came in, finished her feed and then remembered her new calf hidden in the pasture. The panic-stricken mom would lumber out the gate, bag swinging, knees creaking, calling frantically. If she didn’t find it by herself, we’d have to help her. If we found it first, we’d start pushing it toward home and call the mother. She’d shamble up, sniff it all over while grunting to it. We’d have to keep pushing them home before the calf started sucking or the trip would take forever.
Star was the boss of our small herd. When she moved in for her share of hay or grain, the others gave her room with no argument. Most of the other cows were her daughters, making Dad’s operation truly a family affair. There were Daisy, Buttercup, Alice, Lucky —they were Herefords, good producers of both milk and meat, gentle animals for the most part. Wild Cow was at the bottom of the butting hierarchy so she can be forgiven for being skittish.
Star and Dandelion had collars with a bell so we could tell where they were in the pasture or whether they were coming in at end of day. They came in by themselves. If they were late, we’d stand at the pasture gate and call, “Come on!” Pretty soon we’d see them sauntering through the trees, heads and tails swinging, taking their time.
Dad milked one or two cows for family use and these old girls were especially tame. Milking time for me holds especially happy memories. I would sit on the extra milking stool and talk to Dad with a cat on my knee. Most often he replied with “Mmmm”, “Yup” or a chuckle. Sometimes I’d brush the cows, making fancy designs in their sides. Their calves stayed in the loose box during milking and I’d visit them, talking to them and putting my fingers in their mouth to see if they’d suck.
The old girls knew the routine. Dad only needed to open the barn door and they’d head for their stalls. If Dad was late, they’d stand at the door calling.
One day, this routine was altered, causing a great upset for the milk cow, Liz. Dad was going to be away at milking time the next day and asked my sister, Marilyn, then 11 years old, to milk her. Mom, not knowing of Marilyn’s already accumulated experience with milking alongside Dad, exploded. She vehemently lectured Dad, saying Marilyn was only a little girl, too young to milk a great big cow. She then announced that she would milk Liz. Dad shrugged and said no more, but everyone knew Mom didn’t know the first thing about milking.
Liz was tethered to a stake to eat grass between the buildings. The next evening, Mom marched out with the pail. Marilyn followed, feeling displaced from an opportunity to take charge. Mom got a milking stool and placed it beside Liz, who gazed suspiciously at this person she’d never seen before who was trying to do something completely foreign of her routine. She backed away around the tether stake as Mom followed with the stool and pail.
With hands on hips, Marilyn watched this dance before finally asking, “why don’t you put her in the barn?”
Mom handed the pail to Marilyn.
“You put her in the barn,” she said and marched back to the house.
Marilyn led Liz to the barn, milked her and put her back on the tether. No more was ever said about a young girl being too small to milk a cow.
If Liz had had a calf when Mom tried to milk her, Mom would have seen a lot more action. Liz was a very protective mother, becoming quite aggressive when she had a baby in her care. On one occasion I decided to see Liz’s newborn calf. The pair were in the loose box and I climbed the side, peeking over the top with one elbow poking through the boards to hold me there. Liz and I stared at each other. Then I turned my head to look at the calf. In a flash, she swung her head and bumped my elbow, banging it against the board above. I was impressed by her speed and precise aim. She swung her big head, hitting my elbow without bumping her nose on the boards. We had a staring match for another minute before I retreated, having gained new respect for her abilities and a throbbing elbow.
One day I was playing in the living room and saw Dad walking past the window with Dandelion pacing alongside. I dashed to the window for a closer look at such an unusual sight. Mom told me he was taking Dandelion to the stock yards. I’m sure it was the first time she’d ever worn a halter, but that didn’t matter. She trusted Dad and would go anywhere with him. They strolled down the lane, just two friends going for a walk. We only lived a quarter of a mile from the yards and Dad knew that walking her would be easier on her than loading her in a truck, something she had never done. He was making her last walk as gentle as possible.
As with all things, times changed. We kids grew up, moved away and the cows got older still. Dad didn’t need milk cows and the markets changed. He sold the cows and went into feeder steers. One weekend I came home to find the barnyard silent of the ringing bells and low conversations of the old mothers. Later, the pasture changed to cultivated field and eight bright-eyed youngsters appeared under a new red shelter in the barnyard. I accepted this as the normal course of events in farming, but I’ll always remember the cozier days of a truly family farm.