To a 10-year-old – some 10-year-olds – a cow is mostly a chore to be completed before the fun stuff.
To the parents of a 10-year-old, a cow is never just a chore.
We lived on a rented farm in Oklahoma. The whole place covered a couple hundred acres but we really only used a few. On an acre or two, Dad planted sorghum and raised what would today be marketed as free-range hogs. The pigs ate fresh veggies all day until evening, when they’d get a trough of someone’s leftovers – we called it slop and Dad delivered it to the pigs in five-gallon buckets. Eventually, most of the hogs were sold to become bacon, ham and chops.
On the rest of the space available to us, we had four cows and a sluggish red roan gelding. One of the cows was a Guernsey, beloved by Mom for the quantity and richness of her milk. Mom collected the fresh milk in gallon jar and it naturally separated into about two-thirds blue-white milk topped by a third of a gallon of thick, yellow cream. Mom would spoon off much of the cream and store it separately. The remaining cream she stirred into the blue-white milk. The Guernsey made a lot of milk. We got about three quarts of creamy milk every day and there was always more for Dad to mix in with the slop for the pigs. Two boys, a girl, a mom and a dad… that seems like a lot of milk and a ridiculous amount of cream, but I was just a 10-year-old with chores. And an appetite for whole milk, apparently.
The other three cows were simply cows, bought young, to be pastured and fed until they got to butchering or auction size.
Dad was a “pumper and a gauger” for Sinclair Oil. A pumper and a gauger didn’t make much money. To this day, I remember the celebration in the kitchen… all the important stuff happened in the kitchen… when Dad announced he’d gotten a pay raise to $150 per week. In round numbers, that’s $7800 per year.
Even in the early ‘60s a family with three kids lived cautiously but not in poverty on a annual salary of darned near $8,000… before taxes and such. The occasional fresh-from-the-butcher heifer or hog was a welcome supplement to whatever the garden could provide.
My younger brother and I were tasked with feeding the cows after school and before dad got home. Once done with that, we could climb trees or dig caves or run ourselves silly trying to catch the horse.
There are a couple of things you need to know about feeding livestock. A horse generally will not eat itself to death. A cow will. A horse will founder and likely have hoof and leg problems forever but she’ll eventually (generally) stop eating. A cow will simply eat until she can’t eat anymore. And then, if ministrations aren’t applied quickly, she will die.
Under cover of a tin shed at the edge of the cow lot, Dad stored bulk feed in an old, steel oilfield tank with a rough-cut door held in place with heavy hinges and secured by an ordinary hasp.
Maybe we were in a hurry to get to our newest cave. Maybe there was a tree that needed climbing or an old tractor that needed more disassembly. Whatever, by the time Dad got home, three of the cows were down.
The three that were just cows had apparently shouldered the more delicate Guernsey out of the way and the three of them had, simply, eaten themselves to death. The vet was summoned, stomachs were pumped. All three died.
I can’t recall every seeing him cry before or after – he got teary when his parents died, but when I killed the cows… the lost investment and the lost opportunity that would have come at the sale barn… he just flat-out stood at the kitchen door and cried.
I don’t remember that he whipped us. And he never cussed, so we were spared that. I just remember him crying.
In those days in Oklahoma, you could order custom cut-and-wrapped beef from a company called Blue Ribbon Beef. They would provide you with an upright freezer in which you could store the beef – halves or quarters – you bought from them. If you stopped buying their beef, they’d come get the freezer. Not long after I killed the cows, we got a Blue Ribbon freezer and put it out on the screened-in porch at the back of the house.
We still had the hogs. We had the Guernsey and we had the impossible-to-catch gelding. But we were forever out of the cattle business from the day Dad cried.
— The writer and his wife – She Who Generally Knows Best – are former publishers of the Kilgore News Herald. He never was much of a farmer.