Hamilton County NEGenWeb Project

Rambling with Rex

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99 Cows, plus a mean but Happy Bull!

It's Early to Bed and Earlier to Rise for this Dairy Lad!

     As a young lad on the farm a mile south of Aurora, I thought the sun was very lazy getting up -- that is compared to Dad. Even the roosters were still snuggled in their feathers and dreaming about juicy grub worms at that hour

     At 4:30, I'd wake up hearing Dad yelling up the stairs: "Boys, it's time to get up." Steve was a hard sleeper and I'd have to shake him back to life. It took several times of fruit-basket upset before he'd come to his senses. For about 15 years I had to sleep with this octopus . . . on a double bed yet. Several times a night I pulled the covers back over me.

     I recall one hot summer night in bed my brother and I rattled off names of all the people we knew in the world. It must have been Steve's idea, but we took turns calling out names of neighbors, classmates, church members, and relatives. Frankly, I think we knew more horses, cows, and hogs than people. We had to talk in undertones because otherwise, the stairs door would open and we'd hear Mom say, "I don't hear you sleeping up there!" We finally talked ourselves to sleep and we must have run out of names because we never did that again.

     I was 11 then, and thought that a young lad who was doing a man's job on the farm should be allowed to stay up until at least 9.

     Why, land sake's alive, at 8 in the summer the sun was still lollygagging and making fun of us through our shadeless window, which was wide open to catch a snitch of any cool air. Many a night I slept on the cool linoleum in my shorts in front of the window. I found it beat the heat, even though the oak floor was hard as a rock. I did notice that the linoleum was dust free where I slept. Any spot dust-free with the windows open was rare on the farm in the summer.

     The 8 O'clock Rule prevailed whether it was the heat of summer or the cold of winter.

     We had to hit the hay at 8 so we could be fresh at 4:30 a.m., come school, weekend, or summer. Dad must have wanted us to prepare for the next day on the farm, but I always wondered why I couldn't live all of this day first - at least an hour or so more.

     Did I hear an inquiry as to why we had to rise at 4:30? Thanks for asking!

     Within five minutes of the wake-up call, we'd be down at the big red barn where we had 99 black and white cows waiting for us. Yep, every day we looked upon the faces of 198 big brown eyes as the cows marched into the barn, and then we had to look upon the production end of 99 black and white tails while we washed the teats and placed De Laval milkers on them.

     My brother was a year, a month, and a day older than I. As the eldest of what became a medium size family of 8 children, he blazed the trail for us as each arrived and grew up on the farm. Well, to be honest the last two girls grew up in Aurora, so LuAnne and Venida would be classified city slickers. However, when LuAnne married, she became the wife of a farmer, so she should be re-classified. But her husband didn't gather eggs, slop hogs, or milk cows. "No chores," he bragged. I had to agree that it sounded like a swell idea, but back when I was a wee farm lad, the hens, the hogs, and the cows helped make ends meet.

     OK, back to the barn, Rex.

     Steve and I knew the registered names of the 99 black and white cows. Why 99? The barn had 3 rows of 33 stanchions. As a lad, I was told that the cows had three names to prevent mix-ups in identities and to show bloodlines. For instance, the name of our just-freshened cow was Carnation May Juniper, who was a 4-month-old heifer when Maurice Kremer gave it to us for a 4-H project. We were members of the Black and White Dairy Club and went to area shows. I remember especially being at shows with Marion Condon and his boys. For many years, Marion's cows took top honors statewide for milk and butterfat production.

     OK, you asked why it was important to know the names of all the cows?

     We didn't name all the animals on the farm. True, we had maybe 50 head of sows and we didn't call them by name. Same with the chickens, because it was another farm rule that you didn't name what you were going to eat. None of this at supper like "Want a leg or wing of Penelope?" But the horses had names and they knew their names. The cows acted like they didn't hear us, though. Maybe they all didn't know their names, but I'm sure a few did.

     The cows were registered Holsteins and each month the volume of milk was recorded, plus the milk was tested for butterfat - and I forget what else. Oh, yes there were check for bangs disease, but that was too high tech for this young lad.

     I mentioned that we knew the cows from the back also. It's sort of like a Rorschach test with black blur on a white background. They each had three names and were registered Holsteins. Each cow had an ear tag with a number and a name. My brother and I checked the tags often at first because we learned to identify the cows from the front and back by markings, actions, gait, udder, and feet.

     It was important for the names to be known, because otherwise the milk tester - who was Ivan Smith, the man who years later owned the Hampton Hardware -- would have to rush to the front of the stanchions and try to read the tags. Cows just don't cotton to strangers playing with their ears. To get the head and tail of the same cow, Ivan would have to count the number of heads he passed, and then count the number of tails from the end to get the same cow. See how much running around he would have had to do.

     The day that the milk tester arrived was a special day. It was exciting to have another man in the barn who had been to many farm dairies, plus he had stories to tell and he always marveled at our being able to tell the cows apart.

     Which reminds me when our cousin Robert Derr visited from that big city, Grand Island, he asked: "How can you tell them apart? They're all black and white!" His early life was spent on farms southeast of Giltner, but the closest he'd been to a cow in years was to drink milk from the quart glass Roberts Dairy bottles with cardboard stoppers. It wasn't his dairy, just similar name.

     We lived at the old Farley place a mile south of the county yards in a large two-story house, which was dwarfed by the bigger barn. The building-size ratios fit the pattern developed by homesteaders who learned that the barn was what kept the household running, not the other way around. This barn had enough stanchions for 33 cows in 3 rows, plus in an adjoining brick structure, cooling tanks, hot water for cleaning, and a shower.

     The farm was once part of the Hamilton County Farms Company, which farmed about two sections. This early corporate farm was quite self-sufficient, what with grain elevators, silos, scale house, lake, feedlots, irrigation system, orchard, and houses for 5 working families. There were even horse barns, hog houses, chicken houses, and brooders. Hamilton Quality Hybrid Seed Corn plant was also part of the operation. I don't know how it all worked, but as a lad I was impressed with all the buildings to investigate and to climb around in.

     OK, back to the cows, Rex.

     I know that the bodies of 99 cows are a great heater when it comes to warming up the barn in the winter. In the winter, the chill factor in the barn is erased in a few minutes after letting the cows in. It's time to take off several layers of coats, your hat, and hang up your mittens. And I also know that in the summer time, the heat from cows turns the barn into a sweat factory.

     During the night, the cows stayed close to the barn in the summer or went to the giant L-shaped shed protecting them from northwest winter winds. The cows were always waiting at the door and in a particular order in the morning.

     Cows have a pecking order. They know who the boss is, and if you watch them long enough, you get to know who the leaders are. I couldn't figure out how they decide, or who elects them, but when going out to pasture or coming is, certain ones are leaders. They follow head to tail, almost stepping in the same footprints. Sometimes for the evening milking, the cows in the native grass pasture would start toward the barn, but often I had to walk ¾ of a mile to bring them in. I started yelling "SuBoss" over and over as I walked toward them and they'd raise their heads from the grass and stare at me. Usually the leaders would start home, and the rest would follow.

     We used to have an English Shepherd that was a wonderful dog in bringing the cows home. We'd say "Sic'em" and he'd look up to see when way we were pointing and off he'd go. I remember tricking Penny sometimes when he was sleeping. I'd walk near him, put my hands in my pocket, and then say "Sic'em." He'd jump up to see which way I was pointing. When I didn't point, he'd look around to see if anything was moving. He's whine under his breath, like saying, "Well, what is it goofball?" I'd then pet him and tell him "Good dog." He seems satisfied and then would lie down again. When Penny game up missing, my folks said they think a neighbor a mile away shot him when he showed up to court their shepherd. That farmer later became the police chief in Aurora.

     It seems that I'm prone to wander around like Penny. Back to the topic at hand: the cows are at the doors waiting for the magical hour. Are they anxious to get the pressure in their udders relieved? Maybe so. When cows are late being milked, they do bawl like they're hurting. But the big draw to get them in the barn: a gallon of mixed grains morning and evening. The grain is in trough when the cows race in. They're in hurry to get to their stanchion. The first cow coming in - of course the leader -- always stopped at the same stanchion on the right on her way in and grabbed a mouthful and then went on to her own stanchion on the other side half way down. It happened every time, so we always put extra grain at the one stanchion so that cow wouldn't be shorted.

     In the winter we also had silage for the cows. The silo was connected to the barn and the box of silage was on an overhead track, so it was easy to feed the cows.

     Did the cows go into the same stanchions each time? Yes. How did they do it? I don't know. Even back when I first started milking cows by hand when I was 9 at another farm, we had three cows and they also would go to the same stanchions every time. I don't remember any difficulty in learning to milk by hand, but problem was in the tiring of the hand and arm muscles. Once the muscles developed, I did OK.

     There's a certain trick when milking by hand. My dad showed me the ropes. First, with the right hand grab the seat. (It was a 4x4 base about a foot long with a foot wide 2x4 on top, shaped like a T.) Grab the pail with the left. Get the cow's attention by talking or petting her. Sit down on her right side, as viewed from the rear. Put your left knee against her right leg, lean your head into the her flank, and hold the pail between your knees. OK, you're ready to start milking. The reason for placing parts of your body against hers is to discern her intentions before a catastrophe happens. A cow has to shift weight to be able to kick or to move, so when you feel the pressure on your knee lessening, you know something is up. She may be just shifting her weight around to get comfortable, or she may be planning to kick you. Before finding out, grab the pail handle with the left hand, rise up, and pick up the seat at the same time. Some cows need to be hobbled with chains around the hocks, but milking becomes old hat to the cows and only first-time freshened heifers need to be taught with the hobbles.

     Heifers are a year old when first bred and it takes 9 months for a calf. For range cattle, the calf suckled until its mother won't have it anymore (months are common), but in registered cows, the calf gets to suckle two or three days to drink the germ-fighting colostrums that the mother produces. It's high in protein and antibodies. After that the two are separated, the calf goes to a calf pen bawling and the mother -- also bawling -- returns to the herd when her milk is clear. The calf is fed by another nipple on a lower side of a pail, which has nutrients, meds, and milk from other freshened cows.

     All this was a natural for this young farm lad, but what was unnatural at the time was finding time to learn the multiplication table and why long division was necessary - not to mention English grammar. We went to the Brickyard School District 24, where Mrs. Pauline Matthews was teaching, and then Mrs. Harley Smith. Classmates that I remember were Ardean Arndt, Judy Kemper, Kathleen and Carol Koop, Jimmy Anderson (who became a dentist), plus my sibs Steve, Pauline, and Alvin, and Danny. Another brother Alfred was anxious to be old enough to go to school.

     Three years earlier in 1946 when Dad worked for the Hamilton County Farms Co., we went to school at District 99 three miles farther south on the KND #14 where Ida G. Bell was the teacher. She drove a gray '34 Ford with rumble seat. She would take us to school and would be singing at the top of her voice either "The Old Rugged Cross" or "In the Garden" while zooming down the graveled Highway 14. It was also called the KND road - the Kansas, Nebraska, Dakotas - because the highway started at the south border of Kansas and went to the top border of North Dakota. Classmates there that I recall there are Jerry and Elaine Wall and Gene Friesen. I remember one day she piled us all in the car, including rumble seat, and took us to visit the Hamilton County Museum and the Courthouse. We got to walk to the top of the tower and that was the highest I'd ever been from the ground. Boy, I thought I was really up in the world.

What attributes did I learn from so many cow friends?

     Patience: They seem to have all the time in the world while chewing their cuds. They were never in a hurry, but they were a great weather vane. It could be a bright sunny afternoon but if the cows acted spooky, like jumping and butting each other, you knew there would be a violent storm that evening like the sky was crashing in.

     Inquisitiveness: Cows have big brown friendly eyes and they can stare you down. But with those eyes they investigate everything and they watching what you're doing. They want to know "why" to everything. Put a sack over a post and they'll each approach it slowly, smelling, and watching it - ready to jump as a second's notice. Anything new they'll investigate. Years later I read a news article from Australia about cows walking into fences and each other. It turns out they had watched a crew weld a pipeline across their pasture, and had become blind. Cows are very caution, but very also very inquisitive.

     Contentment: This attribute is a by-product of patience. There have been advertisements about contented cows giving the best milk. Whether in freezing cold or in sweltering heat, they take it all in stride. Once the young heifer freshens, she soon learns that the massage of the udder and the pat on the rump means she's in good hands and the farmer cares for her. You can even walk up to her in the corral and put your arm around her neck and she'll look up at you - big brown eyes and all. Even a snotty nose may come with the territory.

     Camaraderie: Cows are a herd. There are no individuals who go it alone. They do everything together. They sleep next to each other. They stick together in a crowd for protection, whether from the elements or a coyote.

     Leadership: Whether there's a herd of five or a hundred and five, there will be leaders. They don't hold elections but somehow they have leaders who take charge. Maybe they're born to lead? The other cows are followers and they're happy to comply.

     So, you see, I learned some valuable lessons from cows that I still put to practice about 60 years later.

     Oh, you did notice about the headline mentioning one bull?

     Mr. Bull was an important part of the herd and he was eager to perform his duties well. I figured out years later why he was mean to people. His home was a bull pen attached to the barn and he was kept from his duties by people, who arranged for his appointments. Because Mr. Bull and all the Mrs. Cows were registered Holsteins, records were kept on breeding, calving, along with vaccinations, and the milk and butterfat production.

     Mr. Bull tried to greet each cow twice a day coming into the barn. They didn't pay any attention most of the year, but he'd be bawling for their company. At least that's what it sounded and looked like to me. Now this bull - I should remember his name - was mean to young lads. You learned to stay out of his pen. Even my dad didn't turn his back to him. Beef cattle on the range are a different story. The bulls aren't separated from his brides and the bull isn't mean. So, how do you sum that up?

     Well, it's time to mooooove on. This is my recollection of the 1940s with just a little bull tale and lots of cows.

©: Rex L. Salmon 2007

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