I was working my Uncle’s farm in northern Wisconsin a few years ago. I didn’t know it, but I was going to be presented with a near tragedy of sorts. It all started with a missing cow, Bessy. Her real name isn’t really Bessy, but she asked that I protect her identity. I’m still not sure if it was Meredith or Bonnie, but I’ve been hiding her name for a long time now and I forgot it already.
Everyone has heard about “Cow Tipping”, but this isn’t about that. Instead, it centers around an actual function of the barnyard, the farm, and herding cattle. What made this particular was the time of the year. It was a month that happened every year, but they were seldom very similar. This one was especially different, just because of the snowfall. I came up during the summer and fall usually, and headed back to my city life long before the snow began falling for the year.
Now you take a one or two thousand pound cow, and weather doesn’t really affect them very much. The heat produced by them more than compensates for nearly any temperature Mother Nature can dish out. Calves are an exception of course, but the bigger cows try not to have them during the winter if they can help it.
Snow is a hindrance to them of course. Just like deer, they tend to make paths through it, and congregate in ‘yards’ where they trample all the snow down so that they can have cow dances. (I made that up, having four feet makes this all but impossible, so they can’t get away from having two left feet).
Now the reason to herd cattle on a farm, as opposed to those that get herded together out west, isn’t to drive them across a prairie or two to fatten them up on the way to the slaughter house. Most farm cows get their daily requirements right in the barn, usually while they are being deprived of their milk. This is of course when they aren’t feeding one or more of the little, colder cowlets, or calves.
Well, as I said, this was an unusual fall. It left much too early, and so, brought in winter and brought with it more snow than a cow can dance in. And it brought all of this overnight, making the possible tragedy, well, possible. After the evening milking, which was one of two milkings that were scheduled every day, come rain or shine, and in this case, snow and darkness, the cows retreated to the fields.
My Uncle’s farm was a series of forty acre lots, loosely strung together, connected by corners that allowed the animals to travel from one to the other (My Uncle’s daughter; my cousin, had horses). When a couple of forties were side by side, or if they were a couple of eighties, you had a field rather than a forty. And yes, they frequently do have what is called, “The back forty”.
To get on with the story, sometimes the cows don’t come in when they are supposed to. This is especially true when they have calves, or are about to calve (meaning that they are about to drop a calf, or give birth to a cow in city lingo). This event is usually noticeable by the observant farmer, or maybe rancher would be a better term for him, anyway, he is usually aware of a pregnant cow and watches for her. Besides the usual difficulties of childbirth (calvebirth in this case), there are usually wild animals running free that would love a delicious newborn calf.
Mom can usually take care of herself as well as her newborn, but in case of other difficulties with the birth itself, and with the addition of some hunting vermin, or mountain lions, it is best to keep an eye out for the cows until you know the birth was successful and the calf is happily following the mom-cow around. Once the difficulties of birth have been recovered from, they are pretty safe from predators.
Oh yes, the story… Well, this very sudden and unusual fall day, the cows went out, and a very heavy snow followed them almost at their heels (hooves). While we, (my female cousin and I) occasionally helped with the milking when there were more than one or two cows freshened (giving milk), we had the night off and rushed to the house when the snow began to get heavy. We were quite surprised by it, and looked forward to playing in it the next day. It was an early snow, and being nice and moist, it would make great forts and snowballs. Another thing about farms, they tend to have lots of children on them, for work purposes. While I wasn’t one of the regulars, I was among many cousins, girls as well as boys.
We intentionally avoided thinking about the chores that were done every day. The worse of these was the roundup. In order to get the milking started on time, allowing my uncle and his strong-armed oldest son to do all of the milking, they had to be ushered from the vast forties and eighties (acres if you remember), and herded back to the barn. If not done, we would be required to help milk them. It wasn’t a bad job, but with the cramping that happened, especially for the ‘city kid’ that I was, fingers tended to bend and hurt like a bad case of arthritis. This could last for weeks afterward.
“Oh Sh*##!” my cousin moaned as she looked out of the window, holding back the curtain with bare fingers. I couldn’t see what she was complaining about because the light coming from the window was so bright my eyes refused to open. The usual pain of this task was running through the very cold, wet, dew covered grass. It was enough to freeze your toes and ankles. Then it occurred to me.
“Snow?” I asked naively. She ignored me and pushed the curtain open fully. I couldn’t believe it, but it became much brighter. I shielded my eyes, but giggled a little, thinking once again of the fun we would have after chores. I stood up and surveyed the yard through tiny slits. It was almost painful even with this precaution.
“Holy Sh*##!” I added to her own expression. She cuffed me in the head with a hardened hand. It hurt, but she was just joking. I wasn’t expected to swear, being a soft city type. I didn’t have it hard enough at home to justify my swearing. I hadn’t earned the right to swear like a real farm hand. I quickly followed her out of the room while rubbing my head.
We slept in most of our clothes since we weren’t in a typical bedroom. Since we were paired by age, we were moved out of the girl’s bedroom while I was staying on the farm. Instead we occupied a room that was sort of a widened hallway with a mattress thrown on the floor. Since there were as many boys as girls in the family, we didn’t feel too comfortable undressing down to our underwear. So we threw a heavy shirt on over our thin T-shirts, and buckled our belts tighter than we kept them for the night.
I followed her to the hallway by the front door of the house, and she dug into a closet that looked like someone had spent years jamming coats, hats, and scarves into it. It was like a wall of wool that hid everything, including the edge of the shelf that hats and such were packed onto. Along with the hats, scarves dripped over it and hid its existence from view. It was like this all year round. It was actually neater at the moment, having been folded and cleaned sometime over the summer. This didn’t help completely because of the ton of clothes that had to be stuffed into the closet, so much of it unfolded itself during the passing year and draped over everything under it.
It was so tightly packed that it didn’t fall even after she had pulled several pieces of clothing out from between others. I caught the first two she threw my way, but a fuzzy blue hat sailed over my shoulder. When I turned around and bent over to retrieve it, I was knocked down by a heavy coat that struck me dead center. Rosie had thrown it with the force of a bale of hay being tossed onto a wagon. I was sent sprawling on my face across the floor. Thank God for carpeting.
“hahahahahahahaha!!” was the laughter that was jingled by several younger cousins at my expense, as they stood over me.
“City girl, city girl!” They taunted me, but I was sure I could take most of them, one at a time, at least the girls.
I stood up and began putting the coat on. Rosie had already dressed while helping their taunting of me. “Thanks a lot.” I complained. I was still buttoning while standing on the enclosed porch. The wooden floor had a thin, dirty rug spread across it, but it was still very cold on my socks. We pulled on rubber boots that were just a bit larger than our feet.
“I got them tight so we wouldn’t lose them in the snow.” I was informed. “I also grabbed the tall ones in case we run into any snowdrifts.” I looked at my pair and pulled my mittens off. I knew I would never be able to grab the tops of the boots and pull hard enough to get them on, not with the mittens slipping with every pull.
The bottoms of the boots were so cold I thought my toes would freeze before we ever left the porch. While it was covered, it wasn’t heated, and the rubber was cold enough that I worried that it might crack. But as I pulled at them I realized that they were thick, farm quality, and I doubted that I could pull hard enough to tear it, even if I tried.
“Move fast.” She told me as I jogged right behind her. I struggled with getting my mittens on once again as we moved between the house and the barn. It was still snowing and a little difficult to see the barn from the distance of the house. It became easier once our eyes got used to the brightness. I looked behind us, towards the gigantic ball of the sun that was shining from a break in the clouds. “It’ll be here before long.” I heard from ahead of me.
I went through the barn and it’s milking stanchions, and back into the wide open space behind the barn, surrounded by heavy bare wood fencing. Around the buildings the ground was pretty much level, and the wind had swept the snow over the mud of the barnyard, leaving piles of dirty brown snow heaped on the back side of each fence pole. A small shed looked twice as large due to the huge hill of snow that had gathered on the leeward side of it. It was easily eight feet tall and squared off as the wind dropped its snow around the corners.
“We shouldn’t have too much of a problem with this wind to help us.” She said loudly through the constant breeze. I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not. I was having difficulty stepping on her heels, trying to catch up at the same time. It was difficult due to the chunky and lumpy nature of the ground under our feet. It had been molded by the hooves of the cows as they stepped into the mud with their massive weight before it had been frozen overnight. It left hoof prints that I could easily step into and trip over.
With all the stumbling and rushing, my toes had warmed up and were quite cozy. If only I could keep the scarf over my face, I would almost be comfortable. It actually wasn’t very cold, probably just cold enough to form snow and keep it from melting as it hit the ground. Of course, once the ground had frozen it filled in the holes, just not packed enough to keep my boots from sinking into the softer snow.
When we cleared the end of the barn I thought I had lost all of my clothes, including my coat and hat. I grabbed the very end of the scarf as it unrolled from my neck and extended downwind. One second of delay and it would have disappeared over a snow bank, never to be seen again. I would have to explain the loss to my Aunt, and suffer the ridicule of my cousins yet another time. I wrapped it tighter this time and tucked the ends into the top of the coat. I was happy to see that it hadn’t really been blown away like it had felt like for a moment.
Rosie seemed to be keeping to a path along the fence. It was running along the top of a flat area, and the snow had all but been blown off down to the grass. I was beginning to heat up inside of the coat after a couple of intersecting fences, indicating that we were going from one forty to another, or to an eighty acre field. She stopped suddenly.
She turned towards me as she stopped. “Well, they usually hole up over in that corner. And in the open area surrounded by that group of trees.” I looked where she pointed and could see that the tree line was a little thinner at one end of the woods. I assumed that the open land was behind this area, but it was best that I follow her anyway. It seemed like an easy task to cross the open field, but I wasn’t so sure. I remembered many small hills and dips between them from the last couple of days, even though the covering snow made the land seemingly flat. Even I knew there would be holes that I could get lost in, or sink in the snow below eye level and not be able to see over the top of the next hill. It’s hard to keep my direction straight from the bottom of snow drift.
“Hey, check this out!” Rosie called to me from ahead. She was walking between two areas that were noticeable as hills on either side of her. I could tell because on the tops of them I could still see the grass where the wind had blown most of the snow off. They weren’t big hills, but she was walking cautiously, taking a step at a time, putting her feet down level and leaving a print of her boots in each step she lifted her foot out of. The valley had been filled by the snow from the tops of the two hills.
She was crossing the valley between two long hills, one that would have taken us nearly across a field if we didn’t want to risk sinking into the snow. It was likely to be only a couple of feet deep, and crossing it would only be about twelve to fifteen feet. She was already across most of it and hadn’t sunk through the crust on the top of the snow. I subconsciously checked the height of the top of my boots.
“Ta Da!” She sprang to the top of the hill on the other side. Her smiling face shone as the sun began breaking through the clouds above. The snow had slowed down, but with the wind blowing it across the tops of the hills, visibility still wasn’t so good. I knew it was my time to make the journey across the snow.
With her watching every move, I stepped carefully, close to where she had made a barely filled path for me to follow. The blowing snow was already trying to fill her shallow footprints. I could feel my feet sinking an inch or so, but then it seemed to be holding my weight.
“Com’n skinny!” she heckled me as I was halfway across. The usual crunch of the snow was followed by a louder one as I stepped once more. My foot went sideways suddenly, but I straightened it just as quickly.
“Ahhh!” I sunk down to the top of my boot. My other knee sunk into the snow also, until I was kneeling on top of it. It probably kept me from sinking further with the first step. I looked up at Rosie. Her hands were on her knees as she laughed behind her scarf. “Hee hee hee. Hee hee hee.” I heard her familiar laughter through the wind.
“Very funny!” I complained while pulling my foot out and hoping that the boot would stay on. I grabbed the top if it just in case and pulled while lifting my foot. Everything came out together. I was thankful, and still reasonably dry. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to safety before I sunk another foot into the depths of the snow.
“Can you see them?” she asked after turning around and scanning the thin area of trees.
“Not really.” I looked where she was pointing, but the black and white cattle blended in well with the snow and the dark shadows of the trees.
“Oh wait!” I pointed myself along her outstretched arm. “There, I saw one of them move.”