One thing a farm teaches is that attachment is hard to explain, but even harder to defy. It is often impossible not to fall in love with the farm animals entrusted to our care.
My first job on our dairy farm was caring for the calves, with help from others at first. It soon became my drive for getting out of bed in the morning, knowing a group of wobbly-legged calves counted on me. I reveled in it, mixing milk replacer and becoming an expert in bucket breaking.
The first one I saved, simply by being tuned in to symptoms, was a lovely little heifer Holstein calf with tons of personality. Our great neighbor and veterinarian, Doc Smith, saved her from sure demise, so I named the calf Doc.
With a perfect white triangle on her face, this heifer was easy to spot. As she moved from the calf pen to the yearling barn, I sought her out. She would always come to me when I called her name, leaning against me like a friendly dog. She tapped me with her head, asking for more attention.
As a first-calf heifer, she was the easiest to stanchion for milking, because she was already as tame as a pet, sweet in every way. She always, without fail, was the first cow into the milking parlor.
She had a sidekick, a large Holstein named Alice. The two came in first and second to milk, morning and night, standing in stanchions beside one another. I had been doing the milking for a number of years by then, and had never seen anything like it.
Dad noticed my growing adoration of Doc, of course, and every once in awhile would remind me with kindness that milk cows don’t stay with us forever.
Bringing the cows in from the far pasture one late autumn evening, I didn’t see Doc or Alice. I hadn’t yet been into the free-stall barn, but as I herded the cows into the holding pen, I spotted Doc, standing beside Alice, lying in one of the free stalls. It appeared Alice had died in her sleep, head tucked in the sweet repose of slumber.
Doc grieved that loss for weeks on end. She went off feed, even refusing grain in the parlor. As I brushed her, she hung her head, glassy-eyed. She stared straight ahead while she was milked, and her placement as high producer dropped significantly.
When the pregnancy check showed her to be open after a couple months, Dad said we needed to consider our options.
“She will be fine, I feel sure of it. Just give her another month,” I stated as if I knew anything at all.
That winter was a rough one. When the brutal cold let up, turning toward brighter, warmer days, Doc began to show up first in the milking parlor again. She ate her grain and let me fuss over her. She produced a beauty of a calf.
Time passed and Doc’s production was no longer at the top, but she was still always the first one in at milking time, a calm and steady presence with the sweetest disposition. When Doc again remained open a bit too long, Dad gave her time, because he hated to see a daughter cry. She produced several nice bull calves, but never a heifer.
Love and loss
One early morning as we stood in the milking parlor, Dad said, “You’ve seen the numbers, and we have to look at production as our business.”
I nodded my head, and fought that lump in my throat. I knew Dad had given me more years with this great cow than the facts would have indicated as prudent.
A farm provides both joy and sorrow, and there were times as a child it felt unbearably hard. But, the experience prepares us in indefinable ways for what is yet to come.
It deepens us with the realization that love and loss walk together, always with us, on our allotted trips around the sun.
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