It started out as a character-building exercise. For two years running, our community’s gentle Brown Swiss cow had had a female calf, expanding our milk herd to the grand total of three. But the November before last, we leaned over the barn gate to see a cream-colored, wobble-kneed bull calf. What to do with him?
At about the same time, we were pondering what to do about the head-butting young manchild in our own household. Could the kid take care of the calf?
The barn is just a couple hundred yards from our back door. Our son could help the little bovine toward a fulfilled life and productive end come slaughtering time next fall.
My husband pointed out that we’re not really a pet family. Our son has never cared for anything that depended on him for sustenance on a regular basis. He lost interest in the rabbit after one week. (So did the rest of us. It found a more stable and loving home.)
What to do about the head-butting young manchild in our own household?
Our son likes meat; he likes to sit out in the deer stand with his dad, and has helped turn a buck into venison roast and sausage. But now he’s going to look a little creature in the eye, name it, nurture it, and know that it has a one-year expiration date? Will he be traumatized?
When we pitched the project, he was so excited that I had to cross out my concern. The sweet little bull, Sport, never had to wait long for attention. Our son was out of bed like a shot every morning, stamping into his boots to jog out and dispense grain, hay, and fresh water.
No, the calf didn’t wait – but we did. The boy was never home in time for breakfast. Neighbors got used to hearing first the bellow of a growing calf calling for breakfast, then the bellow of a frustrated parent calling, “Breakfast time.” A cheerful “Coming!” would float back on the breeze, followed five or ten minutes later by the cowboy himself, remembering, sometimes, to shed his mucky boots before digging into his own grain.
The calf didn’t wait – but we did. The boy was never home in time for breakfast.
There was always a great explanation. Once, Sport managed to get his head stuck in the fence rails. Once a farmhand put him in a farther pasture, and our boy had to lug an overflowing bucket of grain through the near pasture, where the three big cows converged on him hungrily. Friendly, yes; gentle, yes; 1400 pounds each, yes. It’s a little hard to argue in such circumstances. One day, the hayloft begged to be explored; another, the fence needed someone to balance on it.
None of these were excuses, just adventures, narrated with wide-eyed wonder over the cereal bowl. Our “Yes, but you need to get home in time for breakfast” was met with complete agreement, as it would be the following (late) morning.
By summer, Sport’s light fawn coloring had deepened to rich brown, and his bellow sounded like a teenager trying out a cuss word while hoping his voice wouldn’t break. He no longer cared for a friendly scratch between the horn buds. Still, farmer boy was loyal and proud of his charge, and chatted amicably with him while he chowed down his corn.
October came around, and our son went out on the last morning to say goodbye.
By September, Sport was a sturdy yearling. Dad told son not to climb in the pen anymore. October came around, and our son went out on the last morning to say goodbye. He’d gone by himself every morning, and he wanted to go by himself now. So I don’t know what words passed between them. He came back sober, but not flustered.
A well-meaning neighbor asked him, “How will you feel after they butcher your cow?” He answered, after a slight pause, “Full.”
I realized I needn’t have worried.
The barbecue fed two hundred people, and folks were kind enough to thank him for his work. I love watching the quiet pride on his face when he remembers Sport. “Mom, he was a great little guy. And didn’t that meat taste good?”