May 25, 2023 at 4:50 p.m.
Life skills learned on the farm
Life is just different on the farm.
I spent all my growing up years helping with calves. I reigned champion over myriads of buckets, bottles, pails of warming water, electrolytes and colostrum, perfecting my tummy rubbing skills and every trick my sisters and I could concoct to coax calves to drink their bottle.
The problem with having 10+ years of calf-feeding experience by the time you finish high school is that it means you started feeding calves when you were young and clueless. I still giggle as I remember my sister reacting in abject horror to the fact I had decided to stir up the milk replacer with the bottle scrubbing brush the night before because I could not find the usual (clean) whisk. I remember thinking she was way overreacting, but now I realize how ridiculous and completely undermining to our sanitation and disease prevention my young choice was.
Calves teach humbleness. I remember sitting at the kitchen table one Sunday evening in 2020, crying because calf feeding was so overwhelming. We had a new disease in our calves that year, and no matter what we did, it felt like it was not enough. It is those days that make you strong somehow.
On a much lighter note, I honed my negotiation skills in the barn, especially since I was the youngest. I get along really well with my siblings, but the debates always started when it came to calf management. I remember an older sibling coming home from college, brimming with new ideas of how we could do things better, and like politicians working together across the aisle, I stonewalled most of them whenever I could.
My problem with the new ideas was they generally always seemed like more work than the old ones, which in my mind worked well enough. With this open and supportive attitude, I did my best to play devil’s advocate and cling to the status quo. Between my sometimes-overzealous sibling and my often-lazy self, we worked out enough of a balance to usually have pretty nice calves.
My secret weapon was to convince Mom that my way was right and then get her to tell my older sibling we were going to do it the way I wanted it done. There is an evil satisfaction in watching your older sibling bend to your will by proxy.
Parents taking vacations creates an infamous experience when you stay behind on the farm whether you feed calves or otherwise. I remember my sister and I and a local high schooler watching the farm for one simple weekend. Our dairy calved seasonally, and that weekend we got one-third of the calves we were expecting the entire fall in three days. We never got that many calves in one weekend before or after.
Yet, dairy farming was not just hard days or life lessons learned. I think of belting gospel songs together with my sisters in the milkhouse, braiding dandelions while I guarded a pasture gate and a lifestyle that could include catching interesting bugs in the farmyard and putting them in the freezer in old salsa jars to be identified later – or more likely forgotten about. Today, I don’t do the hard work of dairy farming, I just write about it. But, who I am is forever changed because I grew up in one of the hardest, and best, places in the world.
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