Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias The Lias Brothers Registered Holstein farm near Humboldt, where I grew up, boasted a herd of 75 black and white bovines.

To keep that many cows milking all year round meant that young heifers, like clockwork, would give birth, begin lactating, and replace older cows that had gone dry.

During my high school years, the calves were my responsibility.

It wasn't such a bad job during the spring and summer. As autumn approached and night-time temperatures began to fall, however, the babies couldn't sleep outdoors any longer.

There was just one problem. We didn't really have a good shelter for them. So one summer, we devoted considerable time to transforming a vacant barn on the farm into a nursery.

We poured a new cement floor in the barn. Using planks and plywood, we built two long aisles of stalls.

We figured the calves could be kept cleaner and more comfortable if they each had their own living space, instead of sharing a large, common pen.

I remember we were most proud of a component we designed ourselves � nothing more than a piece of plywood with three holes cut in it � nailed on the front of every stall. In the left hole of each stall was placed a bucket I was to keep filled with fresh water.

The right hole held buckets filled with fresh ground corn. And the center hole is where, every morning and night, I would place eagerly anticipated steaming pails of milk or milk replacer (for the older calves) that were consumed in just a minute's time.

We hung a large gas heater in one corner of the building, confident that we had finally found the means to keep our calves healthy no matter how much it snowed or how low the mercury dipped.

We had created an exclusive resort for our tiniest of livestock, or so we thought.

They were treated like royalty. Day after day, I would muck out each stall, and give the calves a fresh bed of straw.

They were fed and watered like clockwork.

They were kept warm.

We had no way of knowing that the premiere opening of our dream calf nursery, however, eventually would turn into a nightmare.

The revamped building couldn't stop our calves from succumbing to the bitter winter climate.

At times, it seemed that nothing we tried � the stalls, the clean bedding, the fresh feed, the warmth � worked.

The little ones were still besieged by scours and what we simply called "the crud," our all-inclusive term for bronchitis or pneumonia.

We could treat these maladies ourselves. I would mix powders and elixers in the calves' milk. At times, we had to force a sick calf to swallow a large bolus of medication to get him or her back on track.

Our weapon of last resort was a syringe and needle. Our veterinarian taught all of us how to give shots to livestock, both big and small. Most of the time, they were effective.

Until the virus hit.

The nursery, it turned out, worked too well. It kept wintery blasts out, and every germ detrimental to young livestock in.

We don't know where the virus originated. But somehow, it was introduced to our young stock, and in horror, I soon found myself filling the dual role of caretaker and undertaker.

I dreaded my morning and evening rituals in the barn. I'd find myself pausing to open the nursery door long enough to chant a wish that every calf inside would be healthy.

More than half a dozen of them died before we could identify the virus and begin vaccinating the remaining young ones.

It was a terribly long winter.

It was a winter that made me ache for spring to arrive.

Eventually, we could hear geese flying overhead. We noticed the days were growing longer and warmer.

When the buds on the trees in the shelterbelt were showing signs they were about to burst open, we decided it was time to kick the calves outside.

We thought this would be a reasonably simple task. Just herd them in the general direction of an open door, we reasoned, and they'd gladly step outside.

We soon realized our calves had no idea that there WAS an outside.

They had spent their entire lives (those who were lucky enough to survive) within the four walls of that utopian world we thought we had created.

They had no idea that the world was any bigger than those small individual stalls that had been their homes.

My brothers and I literally had to carry them outdoors.

They were horrified at first. For the first minute or so, all they could do was stand still, shaking in fear.

But a gradual transformation took place. They discovered that many of the new things they were suddenly experiencing were quite pleasant.

As the sun warmed their backs, they stopped trembling. With nostrils flared wide, they began taking deep breaths of fresh air.

Their tiny hooves, which until this time had stood only on straw, began to step gingerly on the warm ground.

Soon, they were walking, carefully, exploring their surroundings.

And then, realizing they were no longer prisoners in their tiny pens, they began to gallop across the pasture next to the barn in a comical dance to celebrate the arrival of spring.

As I arrived at work this morning, I heard geese overhead.

My almost bare scalp was warmed by a sun that seems to be growing in wattage by the day.

Soon, we will no longer be prisoners of winter.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>