The Cows In My Life

The Cows in My Life

by Haylie Unger, Alto, TX

This is the story of a small herd of Jersey milk cows, and a few of our experiences with them. One cow in particular claims fame in this story and that is Bessie, our first cow. If you have a milk cow, I’m sure that you can relate to many of these incidents; and if you don’t no reason to worry, this story is just as much for you!

It all began when I was six and my family decided to add a cow to our blossoming farm of dogs, chickens and children. We lived in the country and had a small farm of seven acres, so a cow was the perfect addition.

Driving through the dairy pastures with the foreman, my parents appraised the cows he pointed out.

“That cow is out of a good line, it just gives a bit too little milk, only four gallons a day,” the dairyman told them, nodding toward a fat brown cow. “Really, most all of these cows give around four gallons a day, that’s why I’ll sell them,” he concluded.

“What about that one?” Mama asked, pointing at a fawn-colored cow standing near a hay ring and eyeing her visitors curiously.

“Yep, she’s for sale.”

“How much milk does she give?” Daddy asked practically.

“Around four gallons, like the rest. She’s due to calve in a few months.”

“That’s the one I want,” Mama stated. “She looks just like a cow should look!” (It may not sound like a professional way to select a milk cow, but it served us well as it turned out.)

The Cows In My Life
Bessie chewing her cud.

As soon as our new cow stepped off the trailer we all wanted to touch her, but she kept her distance and inspected the field with every sign of her bovine curiosity.

If we had thought a milk cow was just an ignorant animal, we were sadly mistaken! The intelligence of an average-looking milk cow was to display itself in the future!

Mama was given the job of deciding on a name for our new consort. Of course, the name must be approved by everybody, which turned out to be no problem. We all praised Mama’s choice, Bessie, as the perfect name.

A few months passed, and one day our cow added the first calf to our farm. The calf was a heifer, and very healthy.

We felt it was our responsibility to see that she stayed thus, and decided to herd Bessie into the barn and get some milk for the new arrival’s bottle. (Oh, by the way, the bottle was an old baby bottle… can you imagine?)

Truth be told, we were all anxious to milk our new cow for the first time and thought we’d give it a try. We brought out our pail and a bucket of feed and shooed our cow confidently into the barn. Unfortunately, we’d forgotten two very important auxiliaries: a stout rope and a stick! With the aid of these tools, and lots of patience, we managed to coax a pint of milk into the pail. (If you’ve ever had the comical experience of seeing a beginner milk for the first time, you’ll know how funny we looked, and added to that, we were starting on a cow that had never been hand-milked before! Let’s just say we were glad no one was filming us!)

But we soon learned that milking a cow is a very simple feat, once you master the art. For the present, we were satisfied with our meager pint of milk, and poured it carefully into the bottle.

Even baby cows aren’t much of a baby and especially not their mouth. We’ll skip the calf feeding event, mentioning only that it ended in Daddy pouring the milk down the calf’s throat – unrestrained by the bottle – and making the purchase of a real calf bottle at the feed store that evening.

Regardless of the fact that we were sure that Daisy (the new calf, as we named her) needed some help getting to her feet and nursing, she did just fine on her own when she was ready to. And after several days of struggling we finally managed to calm Bessie quite a bit. She learned the routine and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so bad after all.

We didn’t drink the first milk, which is very high in natural antibiotics, and wonderful for a newborn calf; instead, we froze it for future use when we bought calves at the dairy.

Now Bessie was producing at least four gallons of milk a day, and even making cheese, butter, sour cream, and drinking lots of milk, we couldn’t possibly use four gallons a day! Daisy took one gallon, but that still left three to use so we determined to buy another calf. This one was a stout, white baldy bull for whom we had a distinct purpose in mind, as it revealed in his name, “Dinner”.

Perhaps you’ve never realized that different cow’s milk seems to have different flavors (no, I don’t mean chocolate, strawberry, etc.!). The plastic jug milk you buy from the store all tastes the same, due to the processing system and the fact that all the milk is mixed together. We soon found Bessie’s milk the sweetest and richest milk we’d ever had. After milking, we’d strain the fresh milk through a cloth and put the glass jars in the refrigerator; we always used glass because the milk eventually gets into the pours of plastic jugs and sours. After the cream rose, we’d skim it off with a gravy ladle and make butter with it.

Bessie was now standing still when we milked her like a veteran… she was learning well in more ways than one.

One morning Mama looked out the side window to see Bessie standing at the barnyard gate expectantly.

“Now, what could she want?” Mama wondered. “I guess she thinks she’ll get more feed.” And indeed she did!

Our barnyard gate was the bolt-lock type, and that particular day someone had failed to slide the bolt into the lock hole, but instead had shut it on the outside of the post. The gate was on a downhill slant, so this kept it from coming open even though it wasn’t locked. Sometime Bessie must have realized that we pushed the gate to open it, and as Mama watched Bessie did just that. With the tip of her nose, she pushed the gate open and sauntered into the yard. She looked about as if to say, “Did you think I was THAT ignorant?” Then she spotted the barn doors. The barn was a converted machine shop, and the two front doors were the swinging type; they once had had glass in their top windows, but it had long since been busted out. Bessie surveyed the situation with the air of Columbus when he spotted America and knew victory was his. The only obstacle left between her and a barn full of feed was a pair of swinging doors!

Expertly, she slid her head in the top window of the door nearest her and bent her neck just enough to hook the door between it and her chin. Deliberately, she stepped back, pulling the door open; triumphantly, she tossed open the second door and trotted, nonchalantly, into the barn where she buried her head in a sack of feed. Fortunately, her victory was short-lived, and she was chased unceremoniously back into the field.

I’ll take the time to introduce you to several other cows who joined our herd the next year:

Blossom was as robust as her name implies, and quite a friendly cow. She was a dark brown color, with a splash of black here and there. She had just one small quirk, she hated to load into a trailer … but I’ll tell you about that later! Blossom had an excellent bag of milk, and produced so much that we put five calves on her at once!

Elsie was a shy, fawn-colored little lady, with a few great creamy spots on her. She mothered her calves tenderly, and they adored her, but, like some unfortunate beings in this world, she was smitten with one handicap and this was that two of her teats on one side were so close together that they were really just one teat! Still, the calves could nurse, and that was all that really mattered.

April was a skinny, light-brown Jersey, who disliked being handled, but preferred to stay on the other side of the field and view visitors with caution. April was almost what you’d call an easily frightened cow … but not all the way, as she was always on hand at feeding time!

Daisy was a heifer now, and the prettiest red-black Jersey on the farm. She was as gentle as her mother, and a special pet of the family.

Bessie was expecting her second calf, and with all of the other cows we needed a little more pasture, so we leased around 140 acres just a few miles down the road. This was the day Blossom claimed herself famous as ‘stubborn cow of the day’. We had backed the trailer up to the barn; then we leaned several old gates up to form a makeshift chute. Bessie, April, Elsie, and Daisy all jumped right up into the trailer, no problem. Blossom decided that she liked her new home and wasn’t going to move, not on your life!

We hustled her up the ‘chute’ and braced an old hoe handle in the gateway. Blossom backed up very carefully and broke the handle… so we got several stout sticks… try again.

This time, we arranged the sticks just so, and put a guard in the gap. Get up now Blossom! Instead, Blossom leaned back against the sticks. Since she couldn’t break them this time she settled down comfortably, ready for a doze.

All right, here we are, stretching our patience to the very limit, and our wits to their ends, over one stubborn cow. What next?

Daddy got into the truck, very carefully he began to back up, the gap between Blossom and the trailer closed in. Blossom scooted away, but had to stop at the sticks. Closer… closer came the trailer, until it was right in her face. Daddy stopped; now, if we could get Blossom to take just one step she would have her first foot in the trailer. Daddy tapped her front foot lightly with the broken hoe handle. He tapped a little harder. He gave it a nice thump. Nothing. Blossom merely looked down in annoyance, as if she wondered where Mr. Fly came from.

Daddy gritted his teeth. All right. He backed the truck up a little more; now Blossom had no choice but to step in. Instead, she very carefully slid her feet closer together… the trailer came back. Now Blossom’s front and back feet were touching each other and she was literally leaning into the trailer. Daddy stopped. Once again we tried the foot tapping method. Blossom would not budge.

Suddenly an idea struck. A while ago we had purchased a stun gun and, even though the batteries were weak, we decided to try it… what choice did we have?

When Blossom felt that stun gun, the message went home. In one leap she was into that trailer and happy to be there. We never had trouble with Blossom again.

When Bessie was expecting her third calf, Daddy had the unfortunate mishap of getting snake bit. For several days he had to stay in bed and for weeks after that he used crutches.

During his ailment, it came time to bring Bessie home from the leased land; we always brought our expectant mothers home for closer care when it was almost their due date.

This time it was up to Mama and my grandaddy to bring Bessie home, since Daddy couldn’t get around. They brought Bessie home, and even an inexperienced dairyman could tell she wasn’t too far from having her calf. But she seemed unusually restless. First she paced the field, and then she began to low worriedly.

A couple of days passed and reports began pouring into Daddy’s sick room… “She’s going to have it today!”… “There’s no doubt that she’ll have it by tomorrow!”… “Daddy, her bag is full of milk!”… and such statements. Daddy was a bit doubtful of these claims, but when he heard Bessie lowing anxiously late one evening, six days after we brought her home, he concluded that it was time he hobbled out to take a look at her.

With Mama on one side and a crutch supporting his swollen leg on the other, he cripped out to the field. His discovery was startling, as well as a bit frightening… Bessie wasn’t going to have her calf… she’d already had it… BEFORE we brought her home!!!

It was raining and blowing up a gale, but they loaded Bessie up and took her back to the lease. She jumped out of the trailer and began mooing frantically; she ran out into the field and then down toward the creek. For an hour Mama and Daddy watched and listened as Bessie searched for her lost and deserted baby. When Mama and Daddy left, she had not found it, and there was little hope that she would. That’s the way farm life is… you have to take the good with the bad… that’s all you can do.

Early the next morning we drove down to the lease, hoping vainly that Bessie had found her calf. She hadn’t; there was no new baby feeding at her side, and no visible brown patch asleep in the tall grasses. It was then we realized that we had forgotten our milk pail, so we headed back to get it. We’d have to milk her since she didn’t have a calf.

Returning with the pail, we strained our eyes in hopeless hope. “Just maybe,” I’m sure we all thought something like that, then I counted the cows. A mistake, I’d counted one too many. I recounted, and I wasn’t the only one recounting. Several of us gasped in unison. There WAS another calf. Bessie HAD found the missing baby.

It was easy enough to choose a name for our new arrival, Miracle. What else? Miracle was as healthy as any other little calf on the farm, and grew up to be the spunkiest cow on the farm. Six days alone without her mother didn’t seem to have hurt her a bit!

Blossom’s first calf was a bronze and black bull. Very stout and manly. We named him Bruno.

Now, Bruno was destined to be our herd bull. And he grew up as if he planned to make it there in a hurry. Somewhere way back in their ancestry, Jersey’s are kin to the fighting bulls of Spain. Bruno was closer kin than most … at least he thought he was.

He adored the games of “head-butting” and “chase-you- out-of-my-field”. At first his antics were harmless, but not for long. One day he mistakenly took Daddy for a matador, and had him running laps and jumping fences for a few moments. Daddy managed to escape, of course, but decided it was safer to hire a herd bull when it was necessary.

One thing I always wanted as a little girl was a horse; I needed one to ride when I played cowboy. Daniel, my brother, and I were always about some mischief… me leading and him following so as not to desert his chum.

One day we concluded that we might as well give up hope of ever having a real horse, on the other hand, wasn’t a cow the next best thing? Of course! In the barn we found several necessary articles; ropes and dog leashes. Soon we had a makeshift harness all fitted out and were trying it on Miracle. (We always had our favorite calf halter-broke long before they were a month old, so she was relatively gentle.)

Next we drug up our one and only little red wagon. No tongue and no shafts … all right, we’ll just use a rope. Very nice.

We led Miracle out into the field and climbed into the wagon. I held the reins. “All right, Miracle, get up!” I shouted.

Miracle looked around curiously, then down at the tangle of ropes and string tied to her.

“Get up!” we both shouted, and I slapped Miracle with the end of the reins.

Miracle got up! I flew out of the wagon before she’d gone a half step and Daniel came out not too much farther away. But Miracle didn’t stop, not until she had fully dismantled our lovely little wagon and left a trail of tangled ropes and dog leashes in her wake!

But who’s discouraged after a first try? We gathered the pieces of wagon up and repaired it well enough. Awhile later we decided to try again, this time with a younger calf, and in the yard.

We hooked up our second victim and settled into the wagon. We needn’t call “Get up” this time, the calf took off and didn’t stop until he was safe in the barn with the wagon hanging on a haystack and preventing him from going any farther. It was missing a wheel.

Now our next door neighbor had a blow torch and my younger brother, Joshua, was a particular favorite of his. We persuaded Josh to take the wagon over and get our neighbor to fix it. A little later he returned with the wagon, fixed better than new.

Can you guess what we did? We tied it to our calf again.

Now imagine you’re our neighbor, and you’ve just fixed our wagon. You’re standing in your side yard watering flowers, vegetables, or whatever. You hear some shouts and a calf comes dashing around the edge of your neighbor’s barn. Tied behind him is a very familiar-looking wagon. It is missing TWO wheels.

That ended our horse-substitute experiences for a while!

Intelligence seems to grow on a cow, especially a milk cow. Bessie was one of those intelligent cows; she was not only intelligent, but shrewd as well.

One day Joshua and Bethanie were milking, but Bessie wanted them to milk faster, or maybe flies were bothering her, anyway, she was very antsy. Finally, Joshua grew tired of her dancing around so he gave her a quick slap and told her to stand still. Bessie had other plans, though. She stepped over to one side and Joshua had to scramble to move the milk pail in time. He put it over in the corner opposite the gate and tried to get Bessie to stand still, but she had other plans. She swung toward the gate and, Joshua, thinking to guard the gateway and prevent her from escaping, dashed in front of her but Bessie had no plans of escaping; better still, she backed professionally up to the milk pail. She aimed and like a veteran hit the bull’s eye with several green paddys. The milk turned instantly green…

Well, all good things must come to an end… and after several years of raising calves the prices went up so high that we couldn’t afford to buy and resell them for any profit, so we sold all of our cows except for Bessie and her two-year-old daughter Sukey.

The Cows In My Life
Sukey standing in our field.

That isn’t to say we never had another strange, funny, or entertaining experience with a cow. For instance, just last week our cow (Sukey) jumped over the corral gate and took a jog down the road. Several of us jogged with her… not by choice, of course. About half a mile up the road she met up with a cattle guard and had to delay her exercise; meanwhile I caught up with her and that ended her morning jaunt!

As long as you’ve got animals around, things are bound to be exciting!

Oh, by the way, Bessie served us well for many long years, then a couple of years ago she retired to the happy Cow Heaven where the grass is a mile deep and there aren’t any milk pails.

That was a sad day for us… but what can I say? Sukey’s following her mother’s footsteps, so we’re careful to keep the gates locked. And the milk pail well protected!