Thursday might just have been another summer morning except for an unusual pre-dawn sky. I stepped outside to retrieve my gloves and tipped my head to scan an expanse of wispy clouds backlit by the moon. They appeared like breaking waves on a dark sea. A half-halo of rainbow light embraced the moon. It was mesmerizing. Not just another day in paradise.
When we arrive at the barnyard early in the morning, I pull off and park to the side. The Hubs proceeds to a small open shed with calf feeding supplies. He leaves his truck running to illuminate our work. He confirms supplies before stepping into a skid steer waiting nearby.
His first job is to check cows on the verge of calving. A cow in labor sometimes needs assistance. By the time he returns to the shed, I’ve finished preparations. We load buckets of milk, bottles, nipples, pitchers and other supplies on the skid steer. I turn off his truck and walk behind the skid steer to the calf barn, not far away.
On this morning, as I stepped out of my car to exchange shoes for boots, a movement caught my eye. “Cows! There are cows out! Cows!” I yelled, frantic to catch his attention before he took off in the skid steer. He could barely hear me across the distance and over his truck engine.
We’re alone at the farm early in the early morning yet I’d naively assumed I could proceed with calf feeding while the Hubs corralled the renegades. My heart sank when he said, “You’ve got your boots on, don’t you? Get in the truck.”
I have no experience with cows. I’m way outside my comfort zone among cows on the loose. “Um. I don’t usually hang out with big animals,” I said, hoping for a pass. He didn’t say a word but his backward glance clearly conveyed an opinion. I hurried to catch up.
This farm mostly has heifers we care for in exchange for relocating a couple hundred milkers after the barn fire. We drove up the hill and stopped outside a barn. Cows to the left. Cows to the right. Cows emerging from the darkness behind us. We got out of the truck and entered the barn. Walking past these big animals made me nervous.
The Hubs found source of trouble in an open gate and closed it. He rearranged other gates to create access to a holding pen. As he herded strays in the barn, he directed me on the fly to unlock a gate here or there, swing it open or shut, funneling cows to a secure pen. He worked quietly among them. I gritted my teeth and wished to be somewhere else as the big animals rambled past.
Lights from the barn spilled over the construction site at the rear. A half-dozen cows roamed around a large space where concrete was to be poured. In the inky black beyond were random flashes of more Holsteins on the move.
The site was primed for trouble. There were open trenches where water lines were being laid, mounds of dirt, piles of construction materials, and various other challenges. He checked quickly to see if any cows had fallen into trenches. Relieved, he returned to the herding.
As we walked out on to the site, he said, “Stand here. Don’t let them past you.”
How was I supposed to stop a 1,200 pound heifer — or three — on the run? I tried to mimic his actions, spreading my arms wide. I.e. Don’t even bother, cow. You can’t get though. I’m a wall. A brick wall.
I was so scared that I couldn’t stop running my mouth. “Hey, cow! Go! Over there!” I shouted at them. I wiggled my arms and waggled my legs, lifting one then the other as if doing the chicken dance. I moved forward, back, around the site as the Hubs instructed.
Finally the construction site was cleared of cows. We walked into the barn behind those we’d rounded up. “Step up into that group and unlock that gate.” Say, what? My heart was pounding as I moved forward through the pack of beasts. The top of each of their backs was higher than my head.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Pardon me, please,” praying they wouldn’t turn and trample me. I reached the gate with relief that my bones were intact. I pulled the gate toward me as the Hubs herded them around me. I held my breath as they passed, certain I’d be squashed between the gate and the pen.
Then I could hear one of our sons calling in the dark outside. “Hep! Hep, Hep!” he shouted, herding more forward. He soon appeared with two helpers alongside as a few more renegades funneled through. I was flooded with relief. Help had arrived. My work here was done.
“I’ll get started on calves?” I said, hopefully, to the Hubs.
“No, we may need you. Get in the truck.”
I complied as both employees clambered up on the tailgate. We drove around the end of the barn, scanning for runaways in the dark. We found another group of cows gathered in a feed alley. The Hubs dropped the helpers off and directed them elsewhere. I was to follow him into the barn.
He pulled an overhead door down behind me. “Stand here,” he said, pointing to an invisible line a few feet shy of an alleyway. “Don’t let them past you. I need to open some gates.” He took off, out of sight. I was all alone, facing off with another group of cows. Skittish cows. They were clearly out of sorts from late night misadventures.
I stood there looking at them. They stood there looking at me. I wiggled my arms and waggled my legs. Left and then right; left and then right. By now I’d developed my own personal “pssssheww” noise, trying to mimic the Hubs’ quiet technique. But I couldn’t stop my wiggling and waggling routine. I’m a wall. A big, brick wall.
Meanwhile my brain was processing new information. There are some really big cows in this group. I didn’t know heifers could be that big. Where, oh where, was the Hubs? I began to sing, trying to calm my frayed nerves with a children’s church tune. “I won’t worry, won’t worry about a thing. No, I won’t worry …”
Cows are naturally curious animals. My wavering voice caught their attention. I imagine one said to the other, “What’s this twist on the entertainment?” Her sister took note, “My goodness, it’s been a night!” They took a step forward, drawing closer.
I abruptly stopped singing. “Pssssheww! Pssssheww!” I warned, wiggling my arms and waggling my legs to halt their advance. I’m a wall. A big, brick wall.
I don’t know if the Hubs returned or someone else approached. I only know this pack was suddenly on the move. One in front lunged forward, veered right, and the others followed. I held my ground as they rounded the corner, splashed into the alley, and lumbered past me on the left up the incline.
“BIG cows.” I said loudly, quite involuntarily. “BIG COWS!” My mind flashed to my Big. Snake. panic attack several years back. I was weak with relief when the last cow cleared the lane.
We drove back to the calf shed and began preparing breakfast for baby cows. I didn’t say much, overwhelmed with stress of the morning. Good grief. It wasn’t yet dawn and I was just about done in. There were 36 pints of dill pickles and new office floor plans still ahead of me.
At the calf barn, we saw hoof prints in evidence of a herd on the loose. Apparently the big cows had dropped by preschool and helped themselves to a snack of starter grain. I chuckled to myself at the thought. “Oh, Susie,” one might have moo-ed, “Little Sylvie is growing so fast!” Another chiming in, “My goodness. Miss Molly sure does resemble her daddy!”
Much later, at the end of a very long day (sans second sleep), the Hubs and I had a quiet conversation. “Did you notice anything different about that last group of cows we corralled?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” I said, “There were some Big. Cows.”
“Did you notice two with rings in their noses?” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t realize they were in that group.”
How could I have missed such an obvious clue that the “big cows” were bulls? I stammered and stuttered my dismay at facing bulls unaware, certainly in imminent danger if not on the very brink of death.
“I was ready to step in if I needed to,” he said, trying to reassure me.
“No,” I reminded him. “You left the building!”
To Whom It May Concern:
Please be advised that heretofore I will stick with baby cows.
Thank you very much.
[“Big Cows” feature photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com]