PRIMGHAR, Iowa — One of my early memories of Christmas is hearing the story from Grandma about how cows pray at midnight for the baby Jesus. A skeptic five-year-old, Grandma and I had to make the trip through knee-deep snow to prove the yarn. She stopped me short and cupped her hand around my ear as she shouted above the wind and snow flurries for me to be quiet. She asked me to throw up the lever of the switch box just inside the door turning on the row of 40-watt bulbs that illuminated the center aisle of the tie-stall barn while she would swing open the heavy Dutch door. We waited until all the hand on her big pocket watch pointed up. For some reason, Grandma seemed to struggle a little as she opened the door that night, and it took me a few extra seconds to snap on the light.
I could hardly believe my eyes as I surveyed the whole string of cows on their knees, heads down, in prayer just as sure as I was standing there. My wide-open eyes darted to see the other string of cows across the aisle and they too were praying! Of course, we had startled the whole barn with our entrance at the odd hour and every cow was jumping to her feet, but I was convinced.
A few years later, a first year 4-Her paced next to a box-stall on Christmas Eve waiting for his first show heifer to be born. Well, I hoped it would be a heifer calf. The momma cow was a great producer and Dad had said we could keep the calf for breeding if it was bull. A heifer would be called Holly and a bull would be called Mistletoe – Christmas and all. The expectant mother was up and down. Finally I drifted off to sleep on the hay in the manger. Suddenly the sound of struggling woke me. By the time the world came back into focus, Ol’ Bea was laying with her head curled back against her side. I rushed around and saw the feet of an unborn calf. Even at ten, I recognized the signs of milk fever and was screaming for help when I met Dad ducking in the door covered in the white powder of snow from the blizzard outside. Before he looked at the cow, he called for Dr. Lemley from the phone in the milk house.
Time ticked by as the mother-to-be struggled intermittently to have the calf. As the energy drained from her eyes, I felt the joy of the season slip away. What seemed like hours later I heard a strange rattle outside. Who was running a lawn mower at this time of year? As I chipped the frost from the window pane and strained to see through the frost and blowing snow, I thought I could see a single head-light flicker in the farm yard. Dad swung the door open and out of the flurry of snow skidded a bright yellow Ski-Doo snowmobile with Dr. Lemley hunched down behind the windshield. As the sparks from the interaction between skis and cement faded, Doc worked to make his fingers pry off the helmet. His big toothy grin reached Paul Bunyan proportions as Dad reached up above the feed room door and produced the ever-present bottle of Blackberry Brandy. The two-mile ride from town had chilled Doc to the bone, but he wasted no time as he headed for the box stall, vet satchel and bottle in hand.
Minutes later, a fine heifer calf greeted the world and Doc sat on Bea’s shoulders with a bottle of dextrose dripping into her vein. For years, Doc called the heifer calf Ski-Doo. It was one of the few animals he ever called by name and when she was pictured in the local paper for winning at Dairy Cattle Congress, he put the clipping on the bulletin board in the vet office and it stayed there until his death.
Over the years, I came to realize how much I learned that night. How fleeting life can be, how important believing is and how prayers can be answered. I am always amazed at how I remember life by the animals that were present.
This will be the first Christmas in Iowa since returning from Texas, and I look forward to having the boys home. We’ll continue working on remodeling the barn, and I’m sure some of the old stories will be re-told as we mostly stand around the old showbox. A few years ago, we were standing in the barn as the wind howled watching a calf – a red Milking Shorthorn – nibbling at a flake of alfalfa hay. She left her mark on our lives, and I appreciate that the boys, too, find they mark the passing of time by the animals around them. I pray that the legacy of livestock will prosper in yet another generation of this family and yours with another Cattleman’s Christmas.
Till next time, Merry Christmas!
— Fred M. Hall, Northwest Iowa Extension Dairy Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
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