Book Excerpt: Old Habits Die Hard (A True Story About Animals)
By LeAnn R. Ralph
From the book: "Cream of the Crop (More True Stories from a Wisconsin Farm)" by LeAnn R. Ralph (trade paperback; October 2005; 190 pages; $13.95; FREE! shipping) -- http://ruralroute2.com
"Highly recommended reading" -- The Midwest Book Review
"(Cream of the Crop) was extraordinary from the first story to the last. I laughed, cried and sighed at the way you bring the emotions of people and animals to the page." (R.S. -- Clintonville, Wisconsin)
One October afternoon as I shifted my books to the other arm and started up the hill toward the house, cows were the farthest thing from my mind. The sky was color of the turquoise dress my mother liked to wear to church, and the air"filled with the scent of old leaves, ripe wild grapes growing in the fenceline and plums that had fallen to the ground and split open"felt so warm that if I didn't know better, I would think it was summer. Dad said at this time of year nice weather would not last long, and in another month, we might have snow on the ground. We hadn't had weather this nice in more than a week, and I wanted to ride Dusty, my plump brown pony with the white mane and tail. That is, I wanted to ride Dusty if Mom would give me permission. Sometimes my mother had chores she wanted me to do as soon as I got home from school.
At the halfway point up the hill of our driveway, just beyond the plum trees growing in the fenceline, I could see Dusty, grazing on the sidehill in her pasture. The grass was not as green as it had been in the spring and summer, but as far as Dusty was concerned, grass was grass, even if it was faded grass and not growing much anymore. My pony spent so much time nibbling grass in her pasture that in most places, except for the spots where she had left piles of manure and did not want to eat the grass there, her pasture was shorter than the grass in the lawn. My big sister said she ought to mow the lawn again before winter, but so far, she hadn't gotten around to it, although maybe that was because Dad had told her the grass would come back better next spring if it was not cut short this fall.
"Hi Dusty! I shouted.
The pony threw her head up, stared at me, and then trotted toward the fence, ears perked, nickering. Beneath her feet, the yellow leaves of the silver maples growing along the edge of the yard, which had dropped half their leaves on the lawn and half in the pasture, made a swishing, crunching sound.
I looked toward the house and saw my mother sitting in her chair by the picture window. She was holding the newspaper up in front of her but was gazing directly back at me. She let one corner of the newspaper drop and waved. I waved back, and then I climbed the bank and headed across the lawn toward the porch steps. Yellow leaves from the silver maple not far from the living room window covered the lawn, and while I shuffled my way through the leaves, Dusty watched me from the other side of the fence. She knew I was going into the house, so she put her nose to the ground and went back to picking grass.
"Boy, am I glad you're home, Mom called out from the living room as the screen door latched shut behind me.
A sinking feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. "Why? I said.
Whenever my mother informed me that she was glad I was home, she usually had something she wanted me to do.
"I'm glad you're home because Dad started picking corn today, so I want you to put the cows in and feed them, she said.
I set my books on the kitchen table and went into the living room.
"Me? You want me to put the cows in? All by myself?"
Once in early spring when Dad had gone sucker fishing, my sister had helped me put the cows in the barn because, at the time, we had a bull, and Mom did not want me to put the cows in alone. The bull, a friendly yearling we called Bully-Loo, had since grown up and had been sold a while back. And during summer vacation, I had put the cows in by myself several times, but that was when we didn't have any heifers. Over the summer, three Holstein heifers had grown big enough so they could go into stanchions, and every evening for the past week, it had taken both Dad and I to get them into the barn.
All summer long, my father had fed the heifers in a feed trough he had built in the barnyard. Last spring, the heifers were not big enough to go into stanchions, but they were too big to stay in the calf pen. Well, it wasn't that they were too big to stay in the calf pen if one of them had gone in one pen and two in the other pen, except they were such good friends, they all three wanted to be in the same pen together. Dad figured if they stayed outside for the summer, he would not have to clean calf pens, and so, he had built the feed trough in the barnyard.
The heifers had quickly caught onto the idea that when the cows went into the barn, they should stand by the feed trough and wait for someone to bring out a pail of feed. But as Dad and I had discovered right away last week, the heifers would rather stand by the feed trough than come into the barn. My father said they did not want to come inside to eat because they were used to eating their feed outside. "Old habits die hard is what he"d said. When I asked him what that meant, he said it meant habits are hard to break and it would take a while for the heifers to become accustomed to the routine of eating in the barn.
"Did Dad say I should put the cows in? I asked.
Mom shook her head. "No, but if you put them in this time, then for as long as the weather holds, your father can stay out in the field later and still start milking when he usually does."
I knew what she was getting at. If I put the cows in, then Dad would have an extra hour every day to pick corn and would finish that much sooner.
"But what about the heifers? I asked.
My mother pulled off her black-rimmed reading glasses and folded them up. "What about the heifers?
"They're hard to get in, I said.
"Oh, don't be silly. Those heifers have been going into the barn for a week. They ought to be used to it by now."
Easy for Mom to think the heifers should be used to going into the barn. My mother had been paralyzed by polio before I was born and couldn't get around well enough to put cows in the barn.
"I know it's been a long time since I've been able to do chores, Mom continued, "although I don't think heifers are so very much different nowadays."
"But Mom"they don't like to come in the barn."
My mother shook her head and frowned. "Nonsense. When they see the other cows going into the stanchions, they will go in, too, she said.
I knew better than to try to change her mind.
I also knew I would probably still be chasing those heifers around the barnyard when Dad came home.
I went upstairs to change out of my school clothes and stood for a minute by the bedroom window, looking at the bright October sunshine. By the time I finished putting the cows in the barn"if I could even get the heifers in"it would be suppertime. So much for riding Dusty today. Or on any other day for the rest of the week.
A little while later, I headed to the barn to measure feed for the cows. I worked my way down one row of stanchions and back up the other side, placing two scoops of feed in front of each stanchion. I could hear the cows moving around in the barnyard on the concrete slab in front of the door. The cows knew I was measuring out feed, and each of them wanted to be the first one inside.
Even though the air was cooler here in the barn, big, fat, black flies bumped and buzzed against the windowpanes, taking advantage of the sunshine streaming through the south windows. In a few weeks, when the weather turned cold, the flies would find someplace warm to hide for the winter.
I finished dumping the feed, opened the door and moved back out of the way as one by one, the cows rushed toward their stanchions. Their hooves went clickety-clack along the barn aisle, and some of them were in such a hurry, they were practically trotting toward their stalls.
When the last cow had come into the barn, I walked out the door and saw the three heifers standing next to the feed trough on the other side of the barnyard, tails swishing back and forth to chase away the flies.
Over the past week, my father and I had invented a system for getting the heifers in the barn. Dad would take a pail of cow feed (a mixture of ground corn and oats and molasses) and coax them away from the trough while I walked along behind them, waving my arms. Bit by bit we would move them toward the barn, and when they were safely inside, I would shut the door to keep them from going back into the barnyard. Then, once the heifers were in the barn, while Dad continued to coax them forward, I stayed behind them until they went into their stalls.
I stood on the concrete slab, looking at the heifers and wondering how I was going to get them into the barn by myself, until I remembered all of a sudden that I had not yet shut the stanchions. I turned and went inside the barn where the cows were busy eating their feed. At this time of year, the summer birds were gone, and something seemed out of place without the happy chatter of the barn swallows.
I stepped across the gutter channel and walked along in front of the cows to shut each stanchion. In our barn, the cows faced the wall, although Dad said some barns were the other way, with the cows facing the center aisle and their tails toward the wall. The wood-and-metal stanchions were easy to shut on this side of the barn because the cows had only started to eat their feed and were not pushing forward, but I knew that when I reached the end of the barn on the other side, shutting the stanchions would be harder since some of the cows would be stretching to reach more of their feed or to swipe some from their next-door neighbor.
I soon saw that I was right about the cows on the other end of the barn and spent a few minutes convincing some of them to move back a step or two so I could close their stanchions. I wanted to be sure the stanchions were firmly latched because if a stanchion popped open and the cow went outside again after she was finished eating her feed, she would not want to come back in the barn. This had happened once or twice while I was helping Dad put the cows in.
Satisfied that all of the stanchions were firmly latched, I went to the feed box, put some cow feed into a pail and headed for the barnyard. As soon as I stepped out of the door onto the concrete slab, the heifers, who had been watching for me, turned toward the feed trough. I took a better grip on the handle of the feed pail and set off across the barnyard. As I made my way toward the heifers, I kept a sharp eye on the ground in front of me so I wouldn't accidentally step in a cow pie. Dry cow manure wasn't so bad, but fresh cow pies were downright soupy, and I did not want to have to stop, go to the milkhouse and clean off my shoes with the hose.
The closer I came to the heifers, the more they crowded around the feed trough. One heifer pushed another one out of her way by putting her head down and nudging the other heifer's flank.
I knew what the heifers were thinking.
"I'm not dumping this out here. You have to come in the barn, I said.
One of the heifers, the one that had pushed her companion, turned her head and looked at me with soft, friendly eyes. She was mostly black with a little white spot on her forehead and two white feet. Some of our Holsteins were jumpy and nervous, but the three heifers were used to seeing people, and they knew that a person with a pail meant they would get something good to eat.
"Come bossie, I said. "Come bossie, come bossie."
I wasn't sure why I was saying "come bossie, come bossie." What was I going to do after that? If I backed my way toward the barn, would the heifers follow?
Holding the pail out in front of me, I started backing toward the barn. I couldn't go very fast, since I had to keep looking down to see what was on the ground behind me, and at this rate, I knew the trip to the barn was going to take a long time.
"Come bossie, come bossie, I said, looking back at the heifers again.
I was so certain the heifers would not come away from the feed trough that I nearly dropped the pail when all three began to follow me.
I backed across the barnyard, alternating between keeping a watchful eye on the ground behind me, and a watchful eye on the heifers in front of me, and wondered what I was going to do once I reached the barn. I knew I could not circle around and shut the door, because if I did, the heifers would follow me outside. The object was to bring them into the barn"not to let them outside again.
Although, now that I had plenty of time to think during my slow backward walk across the barnyard, maybe I wouldn't have to shut the door. Maybe Mom was right. The heifers had been going into the barn for one whole week.
Many minutes later, I backed through the barn door, with the heifers still following. They reminded me of kittens following their mother when she is taking them out to teach them how to hunt. I had seen the barn cats numerous times, headed across the barnyard with their kittens following single file behind them.
After I got into the barn, I kept right on shaking the pail, and the heifers kept right on following me.
Wouldn't it be something if, after a week of Dad and I trying to get the heifers into the barn, that tonight, when I was putting them in for the first time by myself, they went into their stalls? Dad would be so surprised when he came home.
I still hadn't figured out one thing, though. How was I going to persuade the heifers to go into their stanchions?
I was almost to the first empty stanchion when an idea came to me. Maybe, if I backed into the stall so the heifers could still see the pail of feed, one of them would follow me, and then, I could back through the middle of the stanchion, and when the heifer put her head into the stanchion, I could close it, and then I could do the same with the other two.
I stopped to let the heifers catch up.
"Here, I said, "Look what I've got."
Dad never let the heifers eat out of the pail when he was in the barnyard, coaxing them into the barn, because he said he didn't want them to think that maybe he was going to feed them outside. But once he got into the barn, Dad often let the heifers eat a bite of feed as a reward for following him.
The heifers knew what to do when the bucket was held toward them, and each one was more than willing to put her nose into the pail and eat some cow feed.
So far'so good.
Glancing behind me to avoid stepping off the edge of the concrete, I backed over the gutter channel, chanting "come-bossie, come-bossie, come-bossie, come-bossie."
When my back was almost against the wood and metal stanchion, the mostly-black heifer took a step over the gutter and began to follow me into the stall.
I wanted to yell "yipee! but decided I had better keep quiet. I did not want to scare the heifers.
Still, I couldn't keep from smiling to myself. This was going to work out all"
I didn't even get a chance to think the word "right."
With a startled "Moooo-oooo! the heifer, standing with only her front feet in the stall, whirled around and leaped into the center aisle. She bumped into her companions and then pushed past them. One heifer, reeling from the collision, nearly fell into the gutter channel, but, fortunately, regained her footing and got back into the center aisle before the cow in the stanchion in front of her could react. Some of our cows were awfully quick with their feet. That's what Dad said"they were "awfully quick with their feet"and the cow in front of the heifer who had stepped into the gutter was one of those who could kick in the blink of an eye.
Before I quite knew what was happening, all three of the heifers had turned and were running toward the door at the far end, running as if they were running for their lives. Some of the other cows, surprised by the commotion in the center aisle, began to swish their tails with nervousness, and a few others pulled back against their stanchions. Instead of the quiet sound of cows licking up the last of their feed, there was now the crashing, banging, jingling and jangling of the stanchions and the rat-a-tat-tat of hooves hurrying down the barn aisle.
I could hardly believe it. I had been so close to getting one of the heifers into a stanchion. And now all three of them were gone. The sudden disappointment made my arms feel as heavy as if a bag of barn lime was strapped to my wrists.
But what in the world had frightened the heifers?
Our cows got nervous once in a while if they saw something out of the ordinary in the barn, like our dog, Needles, suddenly coming around a corner when they didn't expect to see him. But Needles, a long-haired cream-colored Cocker Spaniel and Spitz mix, could not have scared the heifers because he was with Dad, picking corn. No matter what my father was doing"plowing, disking and planting crops in the spring"cutting and baling hay during the summer"or harvesting corn or soybeans in the fall"Needles went to the field with Dad so he could keep an eye on things.
The barn cats could not have frightened the heifers, either, because the heifers saw barn cats all the time, especially Tiger Paw Thompson, who liked to parade back and forth along the edge of the barnyard feed trough while the heifers were eating. The cat followed whoever was carrying feed to the barnyard, and then he would jump up on the feed trough. Sometimes the heifers licked him with their sandpapery tongues, and he would come away from the trough with sticky wet cow feed smeared all over his tiger-striped back.
But other than Needles or the barn cats, I could not think of anything that might have scared the heifers.
I put down the bucket and stepped over the gutter channel into the center aisle. To my left, on the other end of the barn, the three heifers were trying to go through the door all at the same time. I turned in the opposite direction'toward the door on the driveway side of the barn"and could hardly believe my eyes.
There, looking over the half-door, was my mother.
"What, I said, "are you doing out here?
At the other end of the barn, I could hear the heifers, their hooves scrambling and scraping against the concrete.
"I"ah"well, Mom said, "I came to"well"to see if I could help."
As I turned my head to look at the heifers again, they finally discovered they had to go through the door one by one. The first heifer trotted outside, then the second heifer, then the third. And then I couldn't see them anymore.
"Boy, Mom said, "they're a little jumpy, aren't they."
Before I could answer my mother, our pickup truck pulled up by the gas barrel across the driveway from the barn.
"Dad's home! I said.
My father opened the door and waited for Needles to hop out before getting out himself. Needles headed toward us, his feathery tail going in circles, as Dad rolled up the truck window and then carefully shut the door. Sometimes Dad slammed the pickup door. Sometimes he pushed it shut so that it closed with a quiet click.
"What are you doing out here? Dad inquired.
I could tell my father was as surprised to see Mom in the barn as I was.
My mother moved one crutch to the side and slid her foot toward it so she could turn to face Dad.
"I thought maybe I could stand by the calf pen to keep those heifers from running up in front of the cows, she said.
Often when we were putting heifers into the stanchions for the first time, or if Dad had bought some new cows at an auction, they ran up in front of the mangers because they were afraid and didn't know where to go.
Beneath the bill of his blue-and-white chore cap, my father frowned and a puzzled look came into in his eyes. "What do you mean, keep them from running up in front of the cows? The heifers don't run up in front of the cows, he said.
Now it was my mother's turn to look puzzled. "But I thought"well"all I've been hearing for the past week is how much trouble you've had getting those heifers into the barn."
Dad took his cap off and slapped it against his leg. The top of his cap and the shoulders of his blue chambray work shirt were covered with a fine layer of dust kicked up by the corn picker. He put the cap back on his head.
"We"ve had trouble getting the heifers into the barn, my father said. "Once they forget about that feed trough outside, they usually go right into their stanchions."
My mother stared at Dad, her eyes as round as the two fifty-cent pieces I kept in a little wooden box on my dresser.
"You mean to tell me that all this time when you said you had trouble getting the heifers into the barn, you meant that you literally had trouble getting them into the barn? That you didn't have trouble getting them into the stanchions, but into the barn? Mom said.
"That's right, Dad replied.
My mother started to laugh. "Ha-ha-ha, ha-ha!"
"What's so funny? Dad inquired.
"You should have seen them, Mom gasped.
"Yeah, you should have seen "em, Daddy! I said. "I got them to come in the barn, but then Mom scared them, and they ran away. They all three tried to go through the door at once."
Dad grinned. "How long did it take "em to figure out they had to go one at a time?"
I fingered the collar of my barn shirt, an old white blouse of my sister's that she said was too short to properly tuck into the waistband of her skirts. "I don't know. Maybe a minute. They kept pulling back, going forward and getting stuck and pulling back and going forward."
"Ha-ha-ha, Mom said as she wiped her eyes again. "I was a big help, wasn't I."
My father rubbed his ear. "You got out here just at the right time, I'd say. Or maybe it was the wrong time."
He turned to me. "I suppose we"d better see where those heifers went to. I hope they didn't end up at the back of the farm."
"At the back of farm? I said.
Dad nodded. "You know how some of those Holsteins are. When they're riled up, there's no telling where they"ll go."
"Hmmmmm, Mom said, "I guess you don't need me out here anymore. I'm going back to the house."
"We'll be in for supper after we get the heifers inside, Dad said.
My father opened the half-door, stepped into the barn and latched the door behind him. We walked down the center aisle together to the other door, and as soon as we came out of the barn, we saw the heifers.
They were not at the back of the farm.
They were waiting by the feed trough.
For the next forty-five minutes, Dad and I chased the heifers around the barnyard. Every time we got them close to the door, they stood for a few seconds, staring into the barn, and then they turned around and galloped away, tails held high in the air, kicking up their heels. After a while, the heifers must have gotten tired of the game"or else they were hungry"because eventually, all three of them trotted into the barn.
"Quick, Dad said. "You go in ahead of me, and then I'll shut the door behind us before the heifers can run outside again."
Once the heifers were in the barn, it only took a few minutes to get them into their stanchions.
"Tell you what, Dad said as we headed toward the house for supper. "If you want to put the cows in tomorrow, that's fine, because it would save time for me, but don't worry about the heifers. Leave them out in the barnyard, and then when I come home, we can get them in. And while you're waiting for me, you can ride Dusty. You might as well take advantage of this weather while we"ve got it."
Dad glanced at me and his right eye closed in a wink.
"Well, Mom said when we walked into the kitchen, "did you get those heifers in?"
"Finally, Dad said as he hung up his chore cap. "And here's what we're going to do after this. The kiddo is going to put the cows in, but she's going to leave the heifers out in the barnyard. And while she's waiting for me to come home so we can put the heifers in, she's going to ride Dusty."
"Ride Dusty? Mom said.
"Yes, Dad replied. "She's going to ride Dusty. There's no sense in those heifers getting so riled up that it takes forty-five minutes to put them in the barn."
My father glanced at the clock, an old butter-yellow Time-A-Trol on the wall by the kitchen sink. "It's later now than if I'd put the cows in myself when I got home."
Mom sighed, and I noticed she had a funny expression on her face. If I didn't know better, I would have said she looked like she was ashamed of herself.
"Yes, it's later than normal. And that's my fault. I'm sorry, my mother said. "I should have realized when she said the heifers were hard to get in that there was something to it."
I could hardly believe my ears and turned to stare at my mother.
"I can tell you one thing, though, Dad said.
"What's that? Mom asked.
"I'm never again making the mistake of feeding heifers outside, if I can help it."
For the rest of the week, I put the cows in after I came home from school, and then, while I waited for Dad, I would go out to the pasture to get Dusty.
On Saturday morning, Dad took the feed trough down, and once the feed trough was gone, within a few days, the heifers started coming into the barn with the cows and went into their stalls as if they had been doing it all along.
"Should have taken that trough down in the first place, Dad muttered when the heifers started coming in by themselves.
My father was right, I think. Old habits do die hard. Not necessarily as far as the heifers were concerned, however"but for Dusty. For the rest of the fall, whenever I helped Dad put the cows in and then walked out of the barn afterward, Dusty would be waiting by the fence between the barnyard and corncrib, nickering, her head bobbing up and down.
I never for a minute, though, fooled myself into thinking my pony wanted to go for a ride. No, what she really wanted is to get out in the yard so she could pick grass. During the four days that I rode Dusty after putting the cows in, I spent half my time pulling her head up, urging her a few steps forward, pulling her head up, urging her forward"
Oh, well"at least I had a chance to spend an hour with my pony on a few warm October afternoons when I got home from school. And that was a habit I could most definitely get used to.
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© LeAnn R. Ralph 2005=06
About The Author
LeAnn R. Ralph
Author of the books:
Christmas in Dairyland,
Give Me a Home Where the Dairy Cows Roam,
Cream of the Crop and
Preserve Your Family History