I needed a Charlotte of my own


“It has been my experience that the only people who don’t coo about cows are ranchers. Talk to ranchers. Some of them just can’t stand cattle. And this considered opinion comes from years of involvement — gathering herds from the range, running them through chutes, testing them for pregnancy, impregnating those that require it, finding lost calves on the range, regathering herds for shipping, loading frightened steers onto trucks, and so on. All of this might be less cumbersome if cattle were brighter, is the cowboy’s theory. Brighter, but not brighter than cowboys.”

— Nora Janssen Seton,

The Road to My Farm, 1993

There was a never-ending argument around our round table, and it usually involved a problem breeding back one of the Holsteins in the milking herd. I was clamoring for giving just a little more time, as Dad pulled out the milk testing records to prove why the plummeting herd average just might be the fault of giving too many of my “favorites” just a little more time.

The second argument tended to run to the question of intelligence among the cattle. I was way beyond certain that the springing heifers I was battling to stanchion train were the only cattle who had not yet come in to any gifts of intelligence.

The older, sweeter, more seasoned milk cows were blessed with not only brains but personality, and I was constantly championing for the right to keep them on the Earth just a little while longer.

Cycle of life

One of the hardest things for any farm kid to come to grips with is that the cycle of life on a farm is finite, and drastically so. I remember the first time I ever read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, I nearly jumped for joy in realizing that others might read this and know exactly what I had been dealing with all my life.

“Please read this before you go to bed tonight,” I remember imploring while my dad sat in his easy chair. He took my small library book in his large, weather-worn hands and said, “I can barely keep my eyes open. Why don’t you tell me what it’s about?”

The story of Charlotte’s Web

I began talking, trying to channel the character of Fern’s spunk and spirit, spinning the story of Charlotte’s Web, looking up some of my favorite parts about Wilbur and reading those out loud.

Dad listened, his bright blue eyes looking back in to mine. I was certain that I was getting through, and I could see a whole new world opening up to me.

New barn

I envisioned a new barn appearing on our farm with plenty of green pasture all around it to house lots of aging cows and pigs. Heck, maybe we would even expand in to a few geriatric pet goats and chickens, and this sanctuary barn would be blessed with lots of gray spiders, carrying various forms of the name Charlotte, spinning webs from the open barn doors to the rafters.

“I know you would like for our farm to be just like that one,” Dad said with kindness. “I have always let you and your sisters work to save the pigs and calves that you insist on trying to save. But, the hard truth is, even the good Lord himself realizes that they can’t all make it. And none of them can live forever. It’s just the way it is. I’m sorry, but that’s the cold, hard truth.”

I remember taking my book back from him and heading for bed, fighting a lump in my throat, feeling defeated.

Never stopped trying

But I never stopped trying. I would point out any little thing to prove my favorite milk cow was blessed with intelligence and personality, which therefore should be reason enough to keep her around.

Imagine shipping a pet to the cull floor when she has proven herself worthy of a great dinnertime story just the night before. It was agony for a kid with too much heart.

I never stopped thinking I just needed a Charlotte of my own, spinning the words “SOME COW” in the sunny door leading to the free stalls. That just might have changed everything!

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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.


  1. Thank you for this story. I grew up a farmkid like you, who shares your agony of the heart. Although we can’t stop reality, I guess we can feel good that we never stopped caring.


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