June 12, 2023 at 3:18 p.m.
Adventures in grazing
That bumper sticker could be interpreted a couple of different ways. As a former dairy farm kid, my reaction was, “Right on! Dairy farming is a tough job. It’s about time we got some recognition.”
I was so moved that I considered dashing off a strongly worded missive to my local newspaper editor stating that dairy farmers deserved to be honored. But then my wife pointed out that we already have June Dairy Month.
When I was a youngster, June’s arrival meant many good things. It meant no more school, no more morning bus to catch, no more regular baths and a gradual reverting to my feral boyhood lifestyle. Above all, June meant the beginning of the grazing season.
Our dairy farm had a small pasture, but we also took advantage of the free fodder growing in the road ditches.
Grazing the road ditches was possible back then owing to the fact that we still had fences. This was before farmland became so valuable that the practice of tilling every square inch became predominant.
Herding our 30 Holsteins in the ditches took planning along with a crack cow-handling team. Our team often consisted of my older sister Di and me.
This job probably seemed supremely boring to the layman. It mainly consisted of walking ahead of our herd as they munched their way southward from our farmstead. When the cows reached the end of our gravel road, it was up to us to turn the bossies around and encourage them to begin grazing their way homeward.
We had tools to help us carry out this crucial mission. Our primary implements were sticks that we would wave as we shouted at the cows. The sticks were augmented by pebbles gathered from the edge of the gravel road. If our yelling and stick-waving didn’t convince our cows to turn back, we would reinforce our message by winging pebbles at them.
Herding was usually an unexciting experience. Di and I had ample time to talk about all manner of things as we kept an eye on the cows and gathered an arsenal of pebbles.
The cows would at first frisk about, relishing their newfound freedom. But, it wasn’t long before they became serious about the task of gobbling grass. Watching the cows gulp down the luscious greenery, Di explained that cattle have the ability to eat now and chew later. I attempted to duplicate this feat as a teenager, but it resulted in a high degree of digestive misery.
The June when I was 7, Di and I were making our way south from our farmstead as King, our German shepherd, sauntered along with us. Due to the shepherd part of his pedigree, we presumed King would be an excellent herding assistant.
As we walked past a culvert, King began to snoop around at the end of the huge tube. A horrific cacophony of snarls, squeals and growls suddenly erupted from the ditch. King was locked in mortal combat with a humungous raccoon.
A blur of fur rolled up onto the gravel road. It was impossible to tell who was winning.
The raccoon was nearly as big as King and obviously an experienced scrapper. Di and I could do nothing but watch from a safe distance, gathering pebbles and hoping that the mêlée would be decided in King’s favor. We had no idea how an angry and wounded coon might react to the sight of a pair of terrified kids who were brandishing sticks and clutching fistfuls of pebbles.
News of the battle thundered across the prairie on an expanding shockwave of roars and yelps. The cows halted their grazing and froze mid-chew. They stared with bovine fascination, clumps of slobbery emerald grass dangling from their mouths.
The hurricane of caterwauling boiled across the steaming gravel road until King at last got the upper hand. Seeing an opening, King seized the colossal raccoon by its throat and pinned it to the ground. The masked varmint was soon reduced to an inert mass of mangy fur. Our cows, sensing that the show was over, calmly resumed grazing.
This sort of thing never happened again, so the word must have gotten out to the raccoon community that King was indeed Canis rex.
As memorable and scary as that incident was, it had an upside. It showed me that dairy farming can involve such extreme levels of heart-stopping drama that your pants become soaked with adrenalin.
Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works full time for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at [email protected].