The cattle never judged me, so I never judged the cattle
Although I spent every day of my Southern Illinois youth on what was at the time a very large dairy farm, I never really had a clue what made a cow or a calf Holstein better or worse than the next Holstein cow or calf.
Much of that inability lay in my complete disinterest in showing off a calf, heifer, or cow at the 4-H county fair. The reason was selfishly simple: since the fair always seemed to be scheduled on the hottest, steamiest day of summer, nothing – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – wanted to be there, so why should I ever want to be there?
This disinterest, however, did not stop me from trying to join the county 4-H dairy judging team. In fact, it spurred me on because on the spring Saturday of the multi-county judging event to winnow the talent (and my older brother, Richard, was a real talent) of posers like me, it also promised lunch at the only McDonald’s in southern Illinois. .
What 11-year-old farm boy wouldn’t have endured three hours of manure-splattered cows to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? And, yes, the first bite of my very first McDonald’s fries that day remains a knee-shaking memory.
But it also left me blissfully unaware of what “confirmation” means in reference to any animal, where exactly I should fix my gaze to examine a cow’s “topline”, or that “hock” was a noun referring to an animal’s foot, not a verb suggesting a visit to a pawnshop.
My father, a lifelong dairy farmer, never offered a single glimpse of cow meat grading despite his annual purchase of six to 10 promising, pregnant heifers. One day he had simply gone “to get heifers”, and the next day a flatbed truck arrived to unload his purchases. All were black and white, all had four legs and four teats, and all were added to the herd without a word of explanation. (Richard watched everyone intently.)
Selection of favorites
However, my lack of interest, talent, or training in judging has never stopped me from picking favorites from the herd. One, which my brother David and I adored, was simply “22”, the number engraved on the brass tag hanging by a chain around his neck.
We didn’t love her for her beauty or her buttery fatness, but because she was a round-bellied pet we could climb on, under and at any time. We could even lie on her broad back while she stood, slowly chewing alfalfa hay with complete satisfaction. She was a perfect, silent friend.
Another animal, labeled 52, had a name: Dyna. The name was for no one; it was the shortened version of her full name, Dynamite, the insight you needed to milk her without losing your right arm. Dyna was the most kicked and abused cow we had ever had on the farm, but she was earning more than her keep, so she stayed – just like our bruised forearms and deflated egos.
Even the farm’s longtime shepherd, Howard, the sweetest soul to ever walk into a milking parlour, didn’t like Dyna. And who could blame him for that; Dyna had two chances a day, six days a week, to cut it. On the seventh, Howard healed.
My dad wasn’t sentimental about a cow or a heifer or a farm dog. If, as he often said about first calf heifers, “Put more on your back than in the bucket,” she got a quick ticket to one of our two basement freezers.
If the Dairy Herd Improvement Association’s monthly records showed a cow slacking, slipping or slowing in production, a bent eye greeted her every visit to the milking parlour.
And he never forgot the slackers or the sliders. If they took one more step in the wrong direction – didn’t breed, jump a fence or give someone a hard time in the living room – they were in the next truck to the National Stockyards at East St. Louis, Illinois, and, I later discovered, to my horror, the nearest McDonald’s.
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