We woke to a fresh blanket of snow on the ground today. I’m glad Anna is home to help feed . . . the cows await.
I cleaned stalls in the calving barn yesterday. It was early morning and the sun shone through the slats in the rough-cut lumber walls. Each cow/calf pair that comes to the barn gets a fresh stall with a bale of straw spread throughout. They are, what we call “kicked out,” as soon as possible, and the stall raked clean, a shovel full of lime sprinkled over the dirt to prevent the spread of disease.
The old barn is nothing if not functional. As you step in, to your right is the “warm room,” or as the sign on the door reads, “technology lab,” where a wall heater warms cold calves. Inside is a sink with hot running water, a recliner that no one ever reclines in, and recycled kitchen cupboards containing an assortment of veterinarian supplies. The floor is littered with carpet scraps to help a wobbly calf stand up. Against one wall stands an old refrigerator, the kind with a lever handle.
A whiteboard hangs near the door where we can leave messages to one another. On a note dated October 2008, Seth wrote, No matter how hard and continuous the work, find time each day to appreciate your lifestyle and the good in the world. I hate to erase that one. There is a heading in the upper left hand corner of the whiteboard entitled “big teats” for recording identification numbers of cows with unwieldy udders. The best laugh was the spring when we had two young guys working for us; T.J. wrote, “Brad’s girlfriend” underneath the heading.
To the left is the straw room, where bales of golden straw and leafy, fragrant alfalfa are stacked against the wall. This room housed both a batch of kittens and a nest of baby rabbits in the past. On the bare wood walls are two crude oil paintings, one of Mark’s grandfather and one of his Mexican helper, Esteban. Both figures don cowboy hats, and grandpa Eldro a bright red neckerchief. No one has ever been able to measure up to the work ethic of Esteban. He lived in the barn for a while back in its glory days.
Down the center is an alleyway with stalls along each side. On the left are the box stalls with an upper and a lower door. Along the right are the open air board stalls. When Mark was young he painted and numbered the stalls and the colors remain vibrant. At the end is a homemade chute for restraining individual cows. We use it to put chains on the legs of a calf that needs pulled, the traction to assist the birth process, or when a calf requires suckling, that patient persuasion to nurse.
From the ceiling hangs a neon sign that reads “Lucky on Tap,” its plug dangling. And on the back wall is a large framed poster of a horned bull, with the words, “Hereford, The Proud Breed with the White Face” across the bottom. We've always been partial to the red white-faced beauties.
All along the length of the alleyway are hanging light bulbs, each with its own switch - mood lighting if you will. It’s quiet and peaceful in the barn. Anyone who spends time here learns quickly to speak in hushed tones to keep the cattle calm.
The calving barn is where we taught our kids about life and death. They’ve witnessed caesareans, mourned the ones we lost, bedded stalls, and bottle fed orphans. When they were little we would tell them to stay out of the way in the warm room while we were bringing in a cow. They remember peeking out the window in the door as she walked by, and then playing quietly while we worked.
I wonder at all the animals saved in this barn. Calves hiding out from a blizzard, ones with a leg back, tangled twins, some that were too big or backwards, others that just needed a helping hand to get started. It's also a classroom for the people that work here - employees, visitors, and especially the kids that grew up here. Lessons on how to milk out a teat, how to suckle a calf, how to apply just enough torque to help a calf be born. Lessons on bovine anatomy, animal behavior, and probably most especially, on sticking with dirty jobs until they’re done. Be quiet. Pay attention. Clean up after yourself. Their relevance rings true.