The best educators have 4 legs

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Being raised on a dairy farm is a special gift. Countless lessons are taught — an appreciation for life, an understanding of death and a respect for everything that comes in between. On a dairy farm, those lessons are best and most frequently taught by four-legged educators.

March 13 marks the birthday of one of my earliest — and most favorite — educators. Licorice was born 41 years ago, when I was 8 years old, at my grandpa and grandma Kroning’s farm in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

Licorice’s birth was long-awaited. My dad had promised me that if our cow, Lea, had a heifer calf, it would be mine. Those were the days before sexed semen and ultrasound, so I remember spending a lot of time trying to be good so Lea would have a heifer calf for me.

When the phone call from Uncle Rick came, telling us Lea had indeed produced a heifer calf, my excitement bubbled over as I told him I was going to name the calf Licorice. He told me she could not be named Licorice; she was not black enough.

That was the day Uncle Rick learned that being a black calf was not necessarily a requirement for the name Licorice, and the 8-year-old won out.

Licorice was an eye-catching, correct calf. She earned a spot with the rest of the show heifers at my grandparents’ farm, housed in a barn on the farm next door.

That barn was struck by lightning and caught fire that summer. My grandparents lost a few heifers and all the bulls they were raising to sell as herd sires. Fortunately for Licorice and I, the show heifers spent the night outside, and she was spared harm.

Even though I was not present to witness the fire, that night is the reason I cannot sleep during lightning storms. I sit and watch the barn, and I keep a set of sharp bolt cutters hanging where they will be easy to access.

That summer also marked my first time showing anywhere other than our county fair. Licorice and I made the trip to the District 3 Holstein Show in Lancaster, where we placed third in a large class of over 30 March calves. It was the first time I met Ray Kuehl, as he judged the show. Ray would come to be someone I would look up to and hold in great respect.

My parents started milking cows on their own that fall, and Licorice made the trip with the rest of our cows to our newly rented farm in Norwalk. Having Licorice with me every day was the most wonderful thing I could think of at that time, and our bond began to grow.

I turned 9 and was able to join 4-H. I was excited for the prospect of showing Licorice at our county fair. She was a big junior yearling, and I had not grown nearly as much as she had. I had trouble keeping her head up, but she was my pride and joy.

Getting ready to go to the ring, my dad cautioned me not to set my expectations too high, but I have always been the competitive type. I grabbed the lead strap and headed to the ring telling him, “We’re gonna win.” And, win Licorice did.

Licorice calved in the next spring, of course, with a bull calf, but she became a good cow. My dad decided we would try our hand at taking a few cows to our District 2 Holstein Show. As fate would have it, Licorice came in heat the day of the show. She jumped me in the ring and knocked me down, and my dad came to take over. Dr. David Dickson was the judge and later said he couldn’t believe he’d missed the commotion. Licorice won her class at the district show that day, and we entered her for the Wisconsin Championship Show to be held later in July, where she placed fourth in the junior 2-year-old class.

In 1988, Licorice was due to calve in July during a hot and dry summer. She picked July 15 to calve, overdue several days. That day still holds the record for the high temperature. She calved late that afternoon, with a heifer calf who came upside down and backward. We managed to save the calf, and I thought to name her Lucky.

Despite everything we did to keep her cool, Licorice suffered from heat stress. By about 11 p.m., my dad was satisfied that we had Licorice headed on the right path, and we left her to rest for the evening. He checked her at 2 a.m., and while she had not cleaned yet, she was up and eating hay. When we went to the barn to start chores at 4:30 a.m., we found Licorice dead.

To say I was heartbroken is an understatement. Those two days are days that I remember each year. I renamed my little calf and called her Little Licorice.

The lessons I learned from Licorice are many.

I learned the magnitude of the gift God gives us through his creation. I learned the importance of caring for that gift, on the good days and the bad. I learned of the love the animals have for you, as their caretaker, and the joy experienced when those animals are successful. I learned of the unspeakable pain when you lose that animal you have poured your heart and soul into. Ultimately, I learned how to cherish the gift, holding the memories of each experience close to your heart.

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