“There is a little man in that child who has already stood his ground with the stubborn calves in the barn and the pigs in the feed lot, but there is also the heart of a saint, for he has learned to be patient and kind to those that others consider dumb animals.”
— Sedonia Smith, 1952
All along life’s path, we learn all sorts of lessons, some large, some small, and these make up the person we carry out in to the world.
I was only 8 when my chores on the dairy farm took on what many would consider too much responsibility for a child. But, I accepted my assignment with an enormous amount of pride and a great deal of assurance from my father who felt certain I would make him proud by doing a good job.
My job was to bucket feed the young calves. For those who have never done it, it may not sound like much. But for the rest of you, it is realized that bucket feeding also means bucket breaking or training, and that can sort of be like riding a bucking bronco for the first go-round.
When I first started, all I had was the realization that these young beings were relying on me — and only me — to get the nourishment they needed to survive. I was young, but I had this much going for me, simply because I had grown up from Day One surrounded by farm creatures.
The milk was warm. Dad had showed me how to dip a hand down in the warm, slightly sticky milk, offering a handful to the young, hungry calf.
“This calf has instincts to drink milk from its mama. You need to show each of them that what is in the bucket is exactly what they want more than anything,” he instructed me.
After that, I was pretty much on my own. He instructed me to hold the bucket up, keeping it steady. This, I came to realize, was important for several different reasons. If I held the bucket steady, the calf would slurp up the milk without getting too terribly impatient, and if everything went just right, not a drop of milk would be spilled.
That is how it goes if we lived in a perfect world. Some young calves caught on well. Others seemed determined to break me. There were times in which more milk ended up on me than in the calf in the first go-round, and we would have to start all over again. It was my job to know which calf ended up getting enough to eat and which had spilled more than it consumed.
I remember discussing the importance of not setting the bucket on the barn floor, for the obvious reasons. It was also mentioned that holding the bucket at the right angle would keep the calf from taking in air as he drank, hopefully preventing belly upsets and scours, followed by a sick calf that may or may not survive.
The torch had been handed off to me by my big sister who was now old enough to take over duties in the milking parlor. I felt as proud as if I had been offered the chance at earning a varsity letter.
There were days I wasn’t so sure I wanted that varsity letter anymore. I earned quite a few bruises from those bucking broncos, lots of sore fingers from the over-zealous eaters who grabbed hold of my fingers like I was filled with manna from heaven. But, I kept working hard and took pride in my first farm job, and stood tall under the praise that Dad showered over me.
“Look at how healthy and sleek these calves are! I don’t think I’ve ever had a better worker in the calf pens!” he would say.
I still remember how great my feelings of accomplishment were, knowing I had done a good job from start to finish.
When we lost a sick calf, I took it hard. “You did everything right. Sometimes the good Lord just knows which ones aren’t strong enough to make it,” Dad would assure me.
What matters is the good that came from this. The simple things — from measuring the correct amount of feed, to cleaning the buckets thoroughly after the feeding was done — all might seem like small steps in the big scheme of things. But, I realize, as I look back on all that we were asked to do from such a young age, that we each became good workers not only in our jobs but in our lives, our own homes, our communities.
I find myself wishing that more kids could have the opportunity to grow up on a working farm, and instead, the opportunities are fading as even the last hold-out rural communities become more and more urban.
I remembered hearing classmates complain about having to do the dishes or fold the laundry, often times for an allowance at the end of each week.
My dad’s uncle who would visit from the city often commented how surprised he was that he never heard us complain, or even need reminding that it was time to put our boots and coveralls on. There wasn’t time for whining; there was always work needing to be done and we knew it required all of us to do it, and do each of our jobs well.
As Rachel Peden wrote in Rural Free back in the late 1950s, “The opportunity of looking intently into some small portion of his natural environment, or the experience of being responsible for the survival of some part of it, enables a man to see his own place in the world with greater clarity, and perhaps with greater compassion. It is only when he sees how everything is vital to the pattern and fits into it that he achieves a kind of refuge for his own buffeted spirit.”