Choosing to embrace family farm legacy when selling the herd
My parents are selling their cows. As is typical of farmers in their 60s, my Dad’s body is telling him—more like screaming at him—to retire from milking cows.
The gamut of emotions that ran through me when Dad made this ‘retirement’ announcement ranged from, “Thank God, my Dad might live to see the 100 years of age that runs in his family” to "Wow, I can’t believe this is actually happening!”
That’s life, though, and seasons change. And right now, I’m preparing to watch the offspring from the herd of cows that built me head to the sales arena at the Great Northern sales barn next week.
During Easter weekend, I had a chance to walk around my parents’ farm alone, without my kids to allow me time to bask in the memories and lessons I've learned from the cows and overall farm life, which are significant in number. I’m not talking about lessons such as hard work, but the lessons learned from experiences—like the time I stabbed myself in the leg with my dad’s jackknife.
I was old enough to know better and was instructed to take my dad’s pocket jackknife from my dad to my mom and back again. This distance amounted to maybe 100 feet along the west side of our barn, near the haymow and old granary. I managed to make it to Mom, but on the way back, I became a little distracted. I got the bright idea that a weed protruding from the ground needed to be cut down at that very moment. So, I opened my dad’s knife and started cutting away.
In a swift fashion, which I evidently did not expect, the knife broke through the weed and stabbed into my leg. Number one lesson learned: Always cut away from self, not toward self. Lesson two: Think really hard about all the places a fairly decent-sized farm jackknife is used on a working dairy. Stabbing one’s self in the leg with said object will result in Mom losing complete control over the germs that just made a grand entrance into a significant body part. Lesson three: Live fairly close to an emergency room, and always have Epsom salt on hand to help fight infection from puncture wounds.
Recreation and laughter
While walking through the yard, I remembered how once and a while, in my youth, the unheard of would happen. All chores for the day would go smoothly, and we’d even get done early. On these rare but valued occasions, my parents would play baseball with us in the yard between the house and the barn. The apple trees and calf hutches were the outfield and home plate was near the black, farm-tire sandbox in front of the house. Sometimes, the hired man would play with us. Lesson learned: No matter how busy life is, always take time for family.
The milking parlor and holding area on my parents’ farm is in the old tie-stall barn. I remember milking with Mom one night and all of a sudden, my sister, Joseta, fell through the haymow floor. There was a soft spot in the haymow floor that was on my dad’s “fix it when I have time” list. Joseta doesn’t remember why she was in that area of the haymow, but she does remember one leg scrunched up underneath her body and the other hanging helplessly through the haymow floor. I remember Mom and I laughing so hard at the vision before us that we were crying. Lesson learned: Life is full of hard times. Laugh them off and move on.
Volunteering a priority
Community involvement was a major part of my family’s life. Both Dad and Mom were raised by parents who valued lessons learned from sitting on cooperative and town boards. My parents were integral in the growth of the Fond du Lac Area Agri-Business Council and the Fond du Lac Area Breakfast on the Farm. They were also very involved in the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Young Farmers program and the National Milk Producers Federation, which took them on many trips throughout the country. They put a lot of effort into starting the Fond du Lac County Holstein Futurity and have shown every year in the futurity since it’s inception.
There was always time for 4-H activities; both were leaders and sat on a variety of committees associated with the popular youth organization. Lesson learned: Serving a cause is gratifying work, and it’s important to give back to the community that developed me as a person.
In front of the machine shed, I stopped to remember how danger is a major part of dairy farming. When my brother, Ted, was a young adult, he wrapped himself around a power take off (PTO). While greasing the machinery, a tear in the underside of his sweatshirt sleeve got caught in the PTO and pulled him in. Standing at almost 6 ½ feet, my brother is a bit larger than the average human being. In addition, the PTO was not spinning at full speed. As a result, my brother, with great effort, was able to hold himself out of the PTO while screaming for help.
Mom had just returned home from getting groceries, and was making trips to bring them all into the house. To this day, she says that was the slowest run down to the machine shed in her life! In addition, of all the tractors on my parents’ farm, she had never driven the one currently powering that PTO, nor were her emotions stable enough at the time to figure it out on her own.
While holding himself out of the PTO, my brother had to give her step-by-step directions on how to shut it off. He survived. Lesson-learned: Never wear baggy or torn clothing around moving equipment parts AND always hug the people around you, because the next day, they could be gone.
A new chapter
My siblings and I grew up showing dairy cattle. We almost always practiced leading our animals on the grass in front of the house, instead of the gravel farm yard. The older animals were heavy enough to leave hoof prints in the lawn, but Mom never seemed to care. We had a lot of great times showing, and now the offspring from the show animals we grew up with are going to benefit another generation of dairy farmers.
I could choose to be sad about my parents selling the cows, especially in the current depressed dairy economy, but I’m not going to. Regardless of the reasons, selling the cows for all dairy farmers is emotionally very difficult!
Instead of being sad, I’m going to relish in the great memories and all the lessons learned. I’m going to try very hard to support my parents and encourage them to make the most of the next season in their lives. On July 2, at the Great Northern in Fond du Lac, I will stand strong. I will remember the good times, and I will congratulate all the new owners on their futures with my parents’ cows. May the memories and lessons learned be plentiful for them.