It had been one of the coldest winters Tennessee had experienced in quite a while. It was the winter of 1964 and temperatures had been below freezing for several nights across the state. Winter is a tough time for occupations that require individuals to work outside and the farmers were spending a lot of time keeping waterlines thawed at their barns, as well as breaking ice on ponds so livestock could have water to drink.
As night began to fall one winter evening in January 1964, a high school farm boy was in the process of feeding hay to his family’s Guernsey dairy cows. It was his job to make sure all the cows were fed and bedded down for the night, especially that night, due to below zero temperatures being forecasted. As he placed blocks of hay in front of the cows, he would also pet each of the bovine giants on the neck as a way of showing his herdsman care. The cows were very important to the family, not only because they provided a milk check for the family to survive on, but also because each animal had been raised there on the family farm making them something very special. The young man knew their names, their bloodline and which calf came from which cow. On that very cold night, he noticed someone was missing from the herd family.
A mischievous yearling was not standing with the others, which was not necessarily a need for concern. Taffy was often bringing up the rear or getting herself into trouble, so the farm boy assumed that this evening was not going to be as simple as he had hoped for. He knew his mother was preparing hot water hoecakes for supper and he wanted to find the wandering cow as soon as possible so both of them could get to their meals and settle down for a long winter’s evening.
However, the cow was not in her usual places of hiding. He checked the back forty acres, the cedar thicket near the barn, as well as made sure all the gates were closed around the lot she was supposed to be in. He knew he had broken the ice around the pond earlier in the day and she had been with the rest of the herd as they waited for each of their turns to get a drink. He thought out loud, “Could she still be there?” He was sure the pond was frozen back over by now, but he thought he should check just to be sure.
Sure enough, the yearling was there and not in the best of conditions. She had walked to the middle of the frozen pond and slipped on its slick surface. Being unable to get up, she had spent most of the afternoon there on the pond. Her condition was critical and the farm boy knew that if he did not do something soon, she would die there on the ice.
After running back in the freezing weather to get his father at the barn, the two of them struggled to get the cow back to the pond’s bank. With the ice making cracking sounds around them due to the weight of the animal, the two finally got the yearling to the pond’s edge. The time on the frozen surface had taken its toll. The animal’s back legs would not move and she was unable to stand. The worst had happened to the dairy cow and the final action is to usually put an animal in this condition out of her misery.
However, that is not what the father and son did that evening. Instead, they made a makeshift cow-sized stretcher out of pieces of tin and took the cow by tractor to the barn. There they made her comfortable and called the vet. He gave little hope for her recovery, but the farmer and his son never gave up. That night the boy stayed in the freezing barn to watch after his bovine patient and friend. For weeks the man and boy cared for the yearling.
One morning, the boy entered the barn as usual, but this time he opened the stable door to see his cow standing and looking to him for her usual welcoming pet on the head and scratch between the ears. That morning, however, she also got a hug around the neck.
You may be asking yourself why I have written this story. After some recent reports in the news the last several days from a few high dollar animal activist groups with misguided and unfair facts about farmers, I use this story as an example to emphasize the fact that Tennessee’s farm families, no matter what the weather conditions, provide only the best of care to their animals everyday. The news, at times, gives all farmers a bad rap when it comes to how they care for their animals when a few “bad actors” are caught mistreating livestock. Farmers do care and also do not condone inhumane treatment of animals. Without healthy and content animals, farmers and ranchers wouldn’t be in business. Only the best of care for their animals means only the best and safest food for you.
By the way, the farmer and farm boy in this story were my father and myself. It is a true story, and I know, because I was there that cold winter night.
Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org