(When I read the story today about cows freezing in New Mexico and Texas, it reminded me of a story from my youth.)
Cold on the farm, in the mountains, in the dead of winter, with the wind blowing, and no sun was really, really, really cold. It’s the kind of cold that you just can’t get away from no matter what you do. Pile on the clothes. Add layers. Put on extra underwear. Two pairs of socks. Thick gloves. A toboggan. A scarf. It wouldn’t matter. You would still be cold.
On this day it was cold. Very, very cold.
Milking cows is the hardest kind of farming is because you have to milk the cows twice a day, every day, no matter what. It doesn’t matter if it is 100 degrees in the shade, 15 below zero, wind blowing, your birthday, Christmas, Easter. Every day, twice a day, year in and year out, when you are a dairy farmer you have to milk the cows twice a day.
Another reality of the dairy business is calves. Milk cows have calves. Farmers let the calves drink their mother’s milk for a little while but then they put the calves in a separate pasture or in a barn and raise them separately and take the milk from the milk cow and sell it. That’s how they make money.
I remember one bitterly cold winter day when I was staying with my Uncle Darrell on the farm in Virginia. I was about 15 years old. I got up with him very early usually at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. We had a little breakfast and then headed out to the barn to start milking. I remember walking from the house on this particular day and down to the barn and worrying that the skin on my face was going to freeze. Every breath I took felt like a knife being jabbed down my throat. I would alternate breathing in and out through my nose and my mouth to spread the pain around.
It was cold. Very, very cold.
The milk cows were all gathered up around the milk house and we started letting them in and milking them. The cows would file into the milk house in single file and we would hook them up to the electric milking machines that would take the milk from the cows and deliver it through the glass tubes over our heads to the cold tank at the end of the building. We had two lines in the milk house and milking each cow would take a few minutes. Once we got into a rhythm, we would take turns during little chores and other work around the milk house and the barn.
On this morning, Darrell told me to go over to the barn and feed the cattle with calves we had in the stalls there. There were several stalls in the barn and each held a cow with a calf. I went over through the barnyard which was normally muddy and wet but on this cold morning it was all frozen as hard as a rock. I opened the big barn doors and slipped in out of the wind. I went into the feed room and filled up a big bucket with sweet feed. It was a mixture of corn and grain and molasses and other things that cows liked to eat. The molasses made it kind of sweet and sticky.
I started moving from stall to stall, putting the feed in the manger for the cows and taking an iron bar and breaking the ice up in their water buckets so they could get to the water. The cows would immediately start eating the sweet feed and, normally, the calves would put their heads under their mothers and gather one of the teats on their mother’s udders into their mouths and start noisily sucking out the warm, thick milk. Everybody was happy and getting fed even on this cold, cold morning.
In a stall on the north side of the barn I entered one of he stalls and immediately knew something was wrong. There was a strong, foul odor in the air when I stepped in. It smelled like sulfur. I put the feed in the manger and the cow came over to eat but she kept looking back over her shoulder into the corner of the darkened stall. I broke the ice out of the water bucket, put down my feed bucket, and walked around behind the cow to see what she was looking at.
Her calf was down in the corner of the stall. His legs were folded up under him and his head was down on the ground. He looked dead. He was sick. Really sick. The smell was from the diarrhea he had from whatever had made him sick. He was cold and dehydrated and weak. I took off my gloves and shoved them into my pockets and tried to get the calf to stand up.
Usually if you just got close to a calf or touched them they would jump up and run to their mothers. Sometimes you couldn’t get near a calf or even catch them they would be so fast and frisky. This calf didn’t move and didn’t respond as I prodded it with my hands. I knew I needed to get him up and try to get him to feed off of his mother but the calf wouldn’t budge for me. I bent down and tried to pick him up but he was just limp. He wouldn’t stand up. He made a weak sound like he was trying to moo and his mother let out a really low bawling moo that made me jump. “Moooooooo,” she said. “Mooooooo.” It was about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. She thought her calf was going to die and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Then all the other cows in the barn started bawling and mooing and making lots of noise as their calves joined in the chorus.
I put my gloves back on, quickly fed the rest of the cattle in the barn and ran back over to the milk house. I told Uncle Darrell what was happening with the calf. Darrell almost always had a twinkle in his eye and loved having fun and having a good laugh. But as I told him about this calf he became very serious.
“Did you get him up?”
“I tried but he was too weak.”
“So, he didn’t eat.”
Darrell looked around and assessed the milking situation. There were just two or three cows left.
“Can you finish this?”
I assured him I could and drew myself up a little taller and stood a little straighter knowing I was being given a big responsibility. Each of these cows was a big investment and the tank was full of milk to be sold. At this point, if I let dirt get in the line or got the cows upset a lot of bad things could happen. I stepped up and took over confidently and Darrell watched me for a couple of minutes then put on his coat and gloves and hat and took off for the barn.
I finished the milking, carefully cleaned the equipment and then went over to the barn stall where I had found the sick calf.
Darrell had the calf up and standing near the cow. He had one arm under the little calf’s chest holding him up and his other hand under the calf’s jaw trying to get him to take hold of one of his mother’s teats to get some warm milk. The calf wouldn’t eat. Darrell took one of the teats and squirted some milk onto the calf’s face and mouth hoping that the taste of it would interest the calf but it didn’t respond. Darrell straightened up and walked the calf over to the side of the stall and tried to get the calf to walk. He held it up, rubbed its legs, rubbed its side and back but the minute he let go of the calf it lay back down in a weak, sick way and sighed. The calf seemed resigned to die on that cold barn floor.
Uncle Darrell sighed deeply and pulled on his gloves. I followed him out into the cold morning air. We walked out into the barnyard. The sun was up a little more but it was still really cold and windy.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“What the calf needs is summertime,” Darrell said. “It needs to be out here in these fields in the tall grass with the sun shining down on it.”
I looked around the bleak landscape. We were a long way from summer. A long way.
Then Darrell seemed to make some sort of decision and went back into the barn. He went into the feed room and came back out with one of the bottles we used to feed the calves. I held about two quarts of milk and had a big red rubber nipple. It was dusty and dirty because we hadn’t used it in a while.
He took off in a fast walk toward the house without saying anything else and I trailed behind him, looking back over my shoulder at the cold barn wishing there was something I could do for that calf.
When we got back to the big farmhouse, Darrell’s wife Janette was up. She was beautiful with long hair. She had on her housecoat and was cooking up a big country breakfast for us. Biscuits. Eggs. Sausage. Gravy. It was going to be a good meal for a cold day but we weren’t going to eat right away.
Darrell kissed her and asked her if he could use a big pot. She looked a little confused because Darrell never did any cooking but she rummaged around and found him really big pot that she used to make soup. Darrell set the pot on the stove and went to the refrigerator and got a big plastic jug of whole milk out and poured about a quart of it in the pot. He turned the electric eye on and then started looking around the kitchen. First he broke a couple of eggs into the heating milk. Then he saw some molasses sitting on the table and poured about a cup of the thick, dark sweet molasses into his pot.
He went back into the refrigerator and looked around but didn’t see anything else for his mixture. The he went out on the back porch and flipped on a light and after a minute or two came back in with a jar of home canned tomato juice. He was grinning like he had found a pot of gold. He opened the jar and poured about half the jar of tomato juice into his now steaming pot then he got a big fork out of the drawer and used it to whip the mixture up and make sure the eggs were broken. He stirred the thick liquid for a couple of minutes and then asked Janette for a funnel. She found him one and held it over the milk bottle she had cleaned up for him while he held up the pot and poured the milk and tomato and egg and molasses mix into the bottle. He forced the big red nipple down over the mouth of the bottle and looked over at me and said, “Let’s go.”
We went back out into the bitter cold and leaned into the wind on our way to the barn. It was a little brighter now but, if anything, it was even colder. It was pushing nine o’clock in the morning and we hadn’t had anything to eat in hours but I could tell Darrell was on a mission so those hot biscuits and gravy would just have to wait.
We went into the stall and the calf hadn’t moved. We took off our gloves and Darrell handed me the bottle. It was very warm in my hands and I could see the bits of tomato floating in the milk that was dark and syrupy because of the eggs and molasses.
Darrell stood the calf up and held it up with one strong arm around its back and under its chest and told me to bring the bottle over. He put his hand under the calf’s lower jaw and raised his head up and motioned for me to put the nipple in the calf’s mouth. We waited for the calf to suck the nipple but nothing happened. Darrell told me to take the nipple off and pour some of the milk mixture down the calf’s throat.
“He can drink it or drown,” Darrell said.
So I took off the nipple and put it in my pocket and poured some of the hot mix into the calf’s mouth. Some of it spilled out and ran down his front legs but Darrell forced the calf’s mouth open with one powerful hand and then rubbed the calf’s throat until it took a big gulp, and then another, and then another.
We put the nipple back on and put it in the calf’s mouth and he started to suck the milk and juice out of the bottle while Darrell continued to hold him up with one hand and rub his throat with the other. After a while, almost all of the milk was out of the bottle and the thin calf’s stomach was noticeably full and round. Darrell then started taking his hand and rubbing the calf’s skin. He told me to come over and help and we both rubbed our hands all over that calf.
After a few minutes, the calf started struggling against us just a bit so Darrell moved him over near its mother and let it go. The calf was still weak but it was standing. It let out a little weak cry that didn’t even sound like a calf but it showed a little spirit. Darrell pushed the calf’s head under the cow’s belly and the calf’s pink tongue ran out of its mouth and gathered in one of the pink teats hanging down from her udder and started eating on his own. He sucked for a few minutes and then we left the barn to go have our own breakfast.
What that calf needed was summer. What he got was the memory of summer in a bottle and the promise of summer from Darrell.
The milk was taken from a cow that had eaten grass that grew in the hot summer sun. The molasses made from sugar cane that stood 10 feet tall and soaked up months of hot summer sun. The eggs came from chickens that ate corn that stood in the rich bottom land of the farm with broad leaves taking the sun into its marrow. The tomato juice came from big red tomatoes that grew fat and sweet in the hot spring and summer on the farm. Darrell took all of that concentrated sunshine and boiled it into a magical potion and put it in that calf’s belly.
I’m not saying it was a miracle. I’m just saying that calf was going to die. I’m saying that the sun found its way into the calf’s belly because a man named Darrell just didn’t know when to quit. I’m saying that sweet and syrupy mixture made a promise to that calf.
That milk was a promise that if that calf would just eat it would one day enjoy a hot green field that would be a foot deep in grass and clover.
That’s the power of the promise of summer on a cold winter’s day.