It wasn’t all simple in simpler times

October 11, 2018

“I bet I can eat 12 of them,’’ he said.

“I bet can eat more than that,’’ I said in response.

The wager was made before breakfast following morning chores and before what promised to be a long silo-filling day. Mother’s pancakes — be they standard or the more unusual buckwheat — were stout. Holes were made in the center of the stack and the void filled with butter and homemade syrup.

Bacon was often served on the side, which made for a breakfast that stuck to the ribs. My appetite never quite stacked up to my older brother’s, just as my work habit fell far short of his. I was far better and content milking cows than operating machinery.

Some people are adept at noticing when a tractor or field implement breaks while others, like me, are plodders. I was most comfortable with the cows despite their sometimes orneriness that delivered swift kicks that bruised the legs and sent Surge buckets into the gutter. Dad never cared much for milking, which meant his boys were responsible for it.

Dad welcomed the transition to electricity, despite his reservations about what he considered to be its steep costs. He insisted that one cow must still be milked by hand because it couldn’t get used to the Surge bucket.

“Ma’s Cow,’’ as she became to be called, required Mother to make the trek to the barn with her milk pail. Ma’s Cow produced a line of cows that were among the herd’s best milkers. In the old days when Dad was short of money he sold some of his finest animals to a cow jockey. Dad made enough — just enough — money to get by and the cow jockey profited handsomely. However, the practice did nothing to improve our herd’s genetics.

My brother, whose twin was in Vietnam at the time, was overburdened in the latter half of the 1960s with field work and cows. The fall had been particularly cruel, with a deluge of rain that delayed silo filling until the first week of December. The cornfield became such a mud pit that two tractors were needed to pull the chopper and wagon through the muck.

The mature corn made for silage so miserable that the cows didn’t milk well. The corn for grain harvest dragged on. The last beans were harvested in mid-December. I rode with him on a miserably cold and clear night when the stars seemed to hang so low that you could reach out and grab one. When the combine ate through the last row, I jumped down and ran as fast as I could for the house on what felt like frozen feet.

I was in high school then, one of many farm kids who milked cows and shared similar experiences. When some of us gathered recently, we estimated that out of all of us, only one still farms. The pastured dairy herds that were common in the 1960s are gone, along with many of the barns that stood on farmsteads along the bus route.

I never expected such great change could happen so fast. The days when a family could be supported on revenue generated by 30 cows, 10 sows, chickens and 360 acres are gone and replaced with a yearning for simpler times when health care and living costs didn’t necessitate city jobs.

Goats have replaced milk cows in the barn where I was so comfortable. The roof warped to such an extent that it was torn off. The silo that Dad paid so much for in the 1960s is still used, along with the smaller one near the barn. Beef cattle graze in the wooded pasture.

I felt the urge to call the cows home one more time. The bell cow would lead the rest on the hilly path that brought them home.

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