Lessons learned while talking cows at the counter

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I can remember sitting at the counter in Grandma and Grandpa Kroning’s kitchen when I was a little girl, talking with my grandpa. Those days are some of my earliest memories, and, for certain, they are some of my favorite memories. 

Grandpa and I would sit there amid copies of the recent issues of Wisconsin Holstein News or Holstein World, with a smattering of sale catalogs mixed in. And we’d talk cows. We would look though those publications and talk about the cows pictured in the ads and the cows selling in sales. That was the start of my dairy judging career and some of my first lessons in breeding dairy cattle, talking about what made certain cows good and what you could improve on other cows.

I remember sitting at that counter, talking about my cow Lass. Lass was given to me as a calf when I was 3. Lass lived at Grandpa Kroning’s farm and had aborted her first calf at about six or seven months. She came into milk — kind of — and wouldn’t breed back. At the counter, Grandpa told me that Lass was going to go live at the veterinarian’s farm; he would try to get her bred. 

I waited and waited for Lass to come back, but she never did. I eventually realized — when I was in college — that she had probably been shipped. Imagine my surprise when, a few years ago, I was procrastinating at another task and randomly searched her name on the Holstein Association USA website, just to find that she had indeed been transferred to the vet.

Curiosity has always ruled my life, so I set out to track down the vet and sadly learned he passed away about two months before my discovery. For the rest of my life, I will wonder if he ever got Lass bred back and if she ever had any daughters for him. 

One year early in my 4-H career, we had not had a single heifer calf born, so I had nothing to show that year. Grandpa told me to bring my piggy bank when I came to visit. At that counter, we struck a deal. Grandpa said I could go to the barn and pick out any calf to show, for whatever was in my piggy bank. I had $43.06. (I’m guessing my parents might have supplemented my piggy bank.) Grandpa and I went down to the barn, and I found a September calf named Marie Sue.

A few years later, my uncle had to leave the farm for health reasons and was selling some of the cows he owned. One of those cows was an EX-92 Roybrook Tempo daughter named Classy. My dad really wanted that cow and had tried a couple of other times to buy her. The day we brought Classy home, my uncle said we would have to take her grandmother for market price in order to get Classy. Dad would have pretty much done about anything to get Classy, probably including giving up his first-born child (me), so he agreed. 

Cinnamon was 12 or 13 years old, 57 inches tall and a three-quartered swing-bag. She never walked anywhere. She always ran. She was bred and due that fall, so we thought maybe we would get a heifer calf and then could ship her. She did have a heifer calf, but it turned out Cinnamon was not an easy cow to ship. She was like having your crazy old aunt living with you — you just smiled at her antics. Plus, Cinnamon knew how to put milk in the bucket. We calved her in two more times.

That day we went to get Classy, Grandpa told Dad to have a seat at the counter. There he mandated that Classy could not leave unless we bought her worthless daughter too. Grandpa was not very happy about a cow like Classy leaving the herd. Dad relented and Princess, a big, lumbering wood-ox of a 2-year-old, got on the trailer too. 

Princess went on to score EX-91 and made milk records that won county production awards as an older cow — apparently she was just a late bloomer. I think that drove Grandpa crazy until the day he died. 

My mom knew we were bringing Classy home. Just one cow. Princess was dry, so Dad told me to take her down around the barn and put her out in the pasture. Surely Mom wouldn’t notice a ginormous speckled wood-ox out in the pasture, right? Cinnamon was still milking, so Dad had to take her in the barn where Mom had started milking. I can still remember hearing my mom say, “What in the heck is that?” as I went around the corner of the barn to hide Princess in the pasture. It should be noted, this was not my first experience in trying to hide cows from my mom, and I admit I have done it in recent years as well.

My grandpa passed away in 1996 when I was 21. I’m so glad that I was able to grow up with him in my life and to have the memories I do of him. I never see an orange tractor that I don’t smile – and shed a tear – thinking of Marclif-Ridge and that counter in the kitchen. I can still hear Grandpa’s booming voice and cackling laugh. 

Grandpa Kroning taught me so many things sitting at that counter, about cows and about life in general. I wouldn’t trade those days or those memories for anything, but I would do just about anything to have those days back — just shy of trading my first-born child. 

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