Memories are funny things. You never know when one will come flooding back to you. Things that happened a long time ago suddenly vividly reappear, triggered by a smell, sound or sight.
Middle age is filled with memory triggers. Walking out of a warm house on a cold winter morning just as the sun is starting to lighten the eastern sky is a memory trigger for me.
Growing up on a dairy farm meant getting up in the dark to go to the barn to get the milking done before the school bus came. Our house had a cold upstairs where the kids over three years old slept. We shared a bed with a sibling and lots of blankets. I remember pulling the covers completely over my head, with just a little opening to breath. Sometimes it helped to wear a stocking cap to bed. Maybe that’s why winter camping never appealed to me.
Dad would call up the stairwell. “Come on, get up”. It was really hard to roll out on the first call. His voice changed a little on the second call and you rolled out and pulled on your barn pants really quick. By the time you got downstairs, he was already heading down the hill to the barn. You put on your overcoat and followed him. To this day the sound of crunching snow, bright stars in the sky reminds me of early morning chores.
The only heat in the barn was from the cows. There were about 34 stanchions and a couple of box stalls for calves. If there were not enough milk cows we would fill the rest of the stanchions with young stock to have enough heat to keep the drinking cups from freezing. On the coldest mornings flakes of frost would flutter down around you when you opened the milk house door. The smell of moist cow breath filled your nostrils. You had to walk in the dark about 20 steps to find the light switch. During that brief moment you felt the barn wake up. Stanchions rattled as the cows lurched forward and stretched. While one person got the milking machines ready, the second person washed the teats. If you weren’t quite awake, you were when a cow whose tail had been soaking in the gutter moments before, gave you a soggy slap across the face. I suppose some cows are not devious enough to do it on purpose but, I think there were some who were.
Back then we named the cows. During my time we had Ornery, Stubby, Pokey, Toots, Buleah, Leana, Lulabell, Big Monkey and Little Monkey to name a few. Sometimes we would discover a newborn calf in the morning. It had been born sometime during the night. By the time were got there it had been wandering around trying to nurse whoever was available and willing much to the mother’s consternation. We wrestled the messy little beast to the box stall where soon it would be time to teach it to drink from a pail. Some calves took to it quickly, some not so fast. The hardest part was keeping the other calves from sucking and butting you when you were holding the pail in one hand and putting your fingers in the milk for the newborn to suck on.
Newly freshend cows were usually no problem to milk. First time heifers, especially the wild ones recently introduced to life in a stanchion, were another matter. It took two people, one holding the Surge bucket, the other the cow’s tail to get them to cooperate. Usually by day two or three, most normal cows would settle into the routine. Not Agnes.
Agnes was a mostly white Holstein. Not particularly big by Holstein standards, she made up for her size in meanness. She gave us a preview of her dark side the first time we brought her into the barn. Getting heifers into a stanchion for the first time was always a challenge. The usual method was to scare them into an open stall between two other cows. Two people would walk up on the wary heifer until the pressure forced her to look for a way out. The space between the two already secured animals became the escape route. The frightened critter would bolt into the open space and unwittingly put its head in the open stanchion. The trick was to slam the stanchion shut before they put it in reverse. Most of the time it worked. But not with Agnes.
You see Agnes had perfected the fine art of cow kicking. To the inexperienced person who has never been cow kicked, it’s hard to imagine a sweet old bovine could or would want to inflict such pain on a human shin or backside. Agnes took special pleasure in such feats of athleticism. The louder one cussed from the pain, the harder she tried. She relished the sound of dismembering a Surge bucket as she simultaneously sent the lid flying in one direction, the bucket in another and the vacuum hose hissing. All the time snapping you across the face with her tail.
Getting this beast into the stanchion for the first time was an adventure. Dad had a rope he called the lasso. “Go get the lasso” he’d say. “Throw it over her head”. When things got going good after being dragged around the barn and through the gutters a few times he’d holler “Snub her down”.
“Snubbing her down” meant wrapping the rope around something solid like a post and hanging on. With Agnes, you needed to go around the post twice and be wearing gloves.
Agnes had a calf, a little bull calf, that looked a lot like her. He was feisty from the very beginning, bouncing around the barn, scrambling between the other cows, taking a slurp here and there and moving on. It was apparent from the beginning he wanted his milk the natural way. No bucket feeding for that one.
Needless to say the first attempt at milking Agnes with the milking machine was a disaster. She was the clear winner by 3 shin bruises, a black and blue knee and a couple of hip shots. By the second attempt she had learned how to put a hoof in your ear. The stubborn calf wasn’t faring much better. Feeding him in the pen with the other calves sucking and butting on you made us resort to bringing him out to the alleyway where he would immediately break away, dash around the barn to annoy all the other cows.
Finally Dad gave in. We guided the annoying youngster to his mother. We watched carefully, fully expecting her to flatten the little guy. Nope. That calf backed himself in alongside mom and commenced having a milk feast. Mom gave us a sanctimonious look and her calf a comforting moo and went about eating her ration of grain and silage.
The problem with Holsteins as brood cows is the volume of milk is way more than one calf can consume. We solved that by adding a second calf to the family. Surprisingly, Agnes took to the addition without incident. As the calves grew they became more aggressive nursers. I almost felt sorry for Agnes when the two calves almost lifted her off the ground when they bumped her with their heads. I said, almost. I figured “what goes around, comes around ” can apply to ornery cows too.