The Cow Whisperer

I’ve decided I should tell the story of the first farm animal my family ever purchased – Lilah the Holstein 4H cow.

As I believe I mentioned in an earlier blog posting, although my father was a businessman in his younger years, under his shirt and tie beat the heart of a farmer. When I was about five, we moved to a 50-acre farm adjacent to the Hatchley swamp (I’m not joking), located on the southern edge of Brant County in southwestern Ontario. My parents built a house on the property, which had soil that ranged from pure sand to boot sucking clay and produced the largest mosquitoes and snakes known to man. We moved in just days before the Christmas of 1975. The next spring, my father set to work building a barn. I believe he had it finished that summer and my mother spent her holidays from her off-farm job painting the trim around the windows (which came from a bus, I kid you not), swatting bird-sized mosquitoes and killing a steadily growing pile of snakes (a story for another day).

After the barn was completed and hay and straw had been moved into the loft, my father decided we should buy a cow. Now that I’m an adult, I must admit I’m not sure what my father was thinking when he decided we needed a cow, and a milk cow no less. Milking cows is a lot of work – they need to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for as long as they are giving milk (they usually dry up just before they have a calf, which is typically an annual event on a dairy operation). That takes dedication and skill, skill I don’t think we as a family possessed at that time. But it didn’t matter – I was just a kid then and I was very excited by the prospect of a new animal to maul, even if it did weigh 1,000 pounds.

I’m not sure how the transaction came about or where exactly she came from or even how she got to the farm (I seem to remember something about her walking behind the truck but that can’t be true) but one day Lilah arrived at the farm. Lilah was huge – (well she looked huge to six-year-old me), a large boned, black and white Holstein, a milking breed. And she was fat, huge with a baby calf that was expected fairly soon. I was ecstatic – a two-for-one deal! My mother was leery.

Lilah was moved into the barn and a pen was quickly constructed out of straw bales. A pasture was also made near the barn in the apple orchard using old fence posts and barbed wire. During the day, Lilah would graze in the pasture and at night, she came into the barn. But since there was no plumbing in the barn yet, my father had to lead her down to the pond morning and night for a drink.

The cool thing about Lilah was she had been a 4H calf in her youth, meaning she was halter trained and spoiled rotten. She had been brushed, trimmed and coddled by the dairy farmer’s son and shown at fairs across the region. She was basically a very large cow that thought it was a dog. My mother would watch in horror as my dad tried to lead her to the water. Lilah would jump and buck and kick in her excitement and basically drag my father to the pond and then drag him back to the barn. She would lower her head and moo at him, trying to butt him with her forehead (a common cow behaviour) and my dad would have to hide behind a tree while she worked off her energy.

Lilah even came with her own urban … umm … rural legend: she had saved the life of the dairy farmer’s son by pulling the drowning boy out of an irrigation pond he had fallen in. Who knows if the story was true – I was ready to believe the damn cow could fly – but Lilah did have an interesting skill that not every cow possessed. She was broke to ride like a horse. Every chance I could, I would beg my dad to boost me up on that cow’s back so I could ride her around the field, clutching her built in “handle” – the bony ridge at her withers. She would start off the ride gently but once she had enough, she would take me under a low tree branch and knock me off.

Me as a little goober riding Lilah the cow in the pasture. If you look real closely, you'll notice she's considering walking under a low branch to knock me off.

Me as a little goober riding Lilah the cow in the pasture. If you look real closely, you’ll notice she’s considering walking under a low branch to knock me off.

I thought she was wonderful.

Everyday after school, I would jump off the bus, run up the driveway and check on the cow. As the due date of her expected calf drew closer, she was kept in the barn most of the time. One day, I came into the barn and was met by a deep moo and then a smaller little croak. The baby had come! Lilah was laying in the deep straw of her pen and beside her lay a little black and white calf. I was so excited, I jumped into the pen to see the little one.

Now, those of you who have a farming background already know that jumping into the pen of an animal that has just had a baby is a very stupid thing to do. No matter how tame the animal, you just don’t know how they will react to a human being in the mix. I was a naïve six-year-old and was clueless about animal behaviour. I curled up beside the calf and Lilah in the straw to enjoy the newest member of the family. And Lilah just lay there, chewing her cud.

About an hour later, my mother came home from work. My older siblings told her all about the new calf. After doing a quick head count, my mother asked where I was. Out to the barn the group marched and discovered me lying in the pen. My mother thought I had been trampled. But I was just curled up beside the calf, both of us sleeping while Lilah watched over us.

The little calf turned out to be a girl – a heifer – and we called her Rosebud in honour of my mother. Unfortunately, not long after her arrival, my dad had to sell Lilah, realizing there was no way we could properly care for this milk-producing machine. A truck came and got the pair. I cried as they drove away.

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