Getting an education in the calf pens


The year that I turned 6 was a big year. I started first grade. I started piano lessons — against my will. And I started helping with the daily chores of feeding calves.

School was kind of nothing new. I had spent hours playing school at a real student desk with three big sisters telling me what to say and how to spell.

Piano was pretty much torture, taught by my dad’s aunt Virginia who was a brilliant pianist. She said to me, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and I was supposed to play that back. I wanted to. I just wanted to put a few swirls and high notes in there.

And I liked those black keys, how skinny and impressive they were against the shiny white keys. Aunt Virginia kept her Number 2 pencil sharpened to a mighty point, and my fingers got the point. Quite often, in fact.

Best lessons

I think, looking back on all of it, I learned the most in the calf pens. The things those calves taught me.

First, bucket-breaking a newborn calf has its own merits, and a book could be written about this alone. I learned that no matter how big or how small the person doing the feeding is, that calf thinks you just might be its mama.

The calf leans in, searching for something, and just when the 6-year-old me thought the calf was playing all friendly and nice, it bucked its powerful head in protest. I landed on my keester on fresh straw, put down by my older sister who seemed to know how this all was going to go.

I learned to go in with my hand held out all friendly like. I also learned not to put my gloves on, even if it was 10 below zero, because that glove will either come up missing in the fray, or it will be covered with goo.


There is absolutely nothing like calf slobber. That stuff could be put in jars and used against the bad guys of the world.

The calf grabbed hold of my fingers with gusto. No matter how old I live to be, I will remember this feeling like it just happened yesterday. That plump cold nose, a gummy embrace on those fingers of mine, all smooth except for a sandpaper tongue.

While doing all of this, I had to maneuver a bucket of warm milk in to the mix, teaching that calf to let go of my fingers and enjoy the milk. How insulting these little calves seemed to think that was.

The minute the fingers were withdrawn, that cute little calf turned in to a bucking bronco, using a strong neck to protest, butting its head against the bucket that I somehow continued to hold even though my fingers were covered with calf slime.

Calf school

Each day, twice a day, more lessons were learned. I found out that I couldn’t set the bucket down, not even for one-tenth of a nano-second, or it would be knocked over.

I learned to stand my ground, or I would be flat as a pancake in that calf pen. I learned that I could do a complete spin with a bucket of milk and not lose a drop.

I knew if a calf didn’t act like a bull in a china shop, there was something wrong and I needed to report immediately to my dad. I found out a happy calf one day could be a dead calf the next if I didn’t pay attention.

I learned all about calf scours and mixing powders to treat it. There were no carrots of bribery held out to me. None of this stuff like “if you feed every single calf today you will get _____”.


I didn’t get a thing. I knew those calves were hungry and they were counting on me to feed them. Twice a day, every day. Homework could be done after supper, but calves wouldn’t wait.


Piano lessons were to be completed daily, and my time slot was after my big sister finished her session at the piano. “Oh, shoot, I can’t take my turn today,” I remember grumbling more than once. “I gotta go feed calves!”

So, you see, I even learned to set priorities. Yep, those calves taught me a whole lot.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.



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