Daddy preferred row cropping to livestock. In my earliest childhood memories, our small cattle herd consisted of maybe 25 brood cows. We had one very muscular Black Angus bull. It seems he would have been quite happy, but he never smiled. We knew to avoid him in the pen or pasture. There were calves, of course, but they were temporary residents on our farm.
The cows were mostly Angus, a common breed of beef cattle, but Star and Della were for milking. Only those two dairy cows had names. Sometimes it’s best not to name your livestock.
Daddy milked Star and Della by hand. He squeezed the milk into a silver metal pail. After he carried the milk inside, Mama took over. She chilled some in the refrigerator for drinking and cooking. Some of it she churned into butter. That butter sure tasted good on homemade biscuits with pear preserves.
An older neighbor, Mr. Ernest Holland, told me something during my childhood that I still think about sometimes. Mr. Ernest said, “You can eat just about anything, if you put enough butter on it.” I laughed and thought he was only talking about butter. Now, I think maybe he was talking about life.
Star and Della were both good producers. They provided plenty of milk for our family of four. Their attitudes, however, were worlds apart.
Della never liked to be milked. She would go right into the stall, understanding that’s where the sweet feed would be, the corn or oats that were quite a treat compared to the Bermuda grass in the pasture. She never understood, however, that the tradeoff for a good meal was to share her milk.
Daddy would occasionally try to milk her without putting the kickers on, but she always failed to appreciate the freedom. He would put one clasp around each of her back legs. A short chain between them kept her from being able to do much damage. Otherwise, she might have kicked Daddy, or even worse, kicked over a full pail of milk.
Star, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the extra attention. She liked for Daddy to wash her udder with the warm soapy water, rinse the soap off, then gently massage the milk into the pail. He alternated squeezes between his right and left hands. The first sounds were streams of milk hitting the metal bottom. The sounds grew softer as milk slowly filled the open container.
Daddy called the cows to the barn using a two-syllable word that sounded like, “Ho-eck.” I don’t know if it’s a real word, something he heard, or something he made up. I just know the cows all came up the lane from the pasture. They knew it was feeding time. Star and Della knew it was milking time.
Daddy put me on Star’s back a few times and let me ride her to the barn. He didn’t have a rope on her and didn’t need one. She just kept up that steady walk toward the trough, ready for the feed, ready for the morning ritual with Daddy’s familiar hands.
I think I was eight or nine when Daddy stopped milking. He had milked cows almost every day since his childhood. I expect he was ready for a break. Most of the neighbors had already decided that store-bought milk wasn’t all that bad, that maybe store-bought butter wouldn’t ruin a good biscuit.
Milk cows and beef cattle have different purposes. Della and Star were milk cows, so their purpose on our farm was over. Daddy took Della to the sale barn, hoping she would find a good home. But Star was family. She didn’t go to the livestock auction. She stayed in the pasture and still came up the lane for generous servings of sweet feed. Nothing was required in return.
When Star died, Daddy sold the rest of the herd. He took up the fences and planted cotton where the pasture had been. Daddy never said much about keeping Star. All I remember is him telling me that he didn’t plan to sell her, that he would leave her in the pasture as long as she could stay.
I can’t say that I learned much about raising cattle from that experience. But I learned something about loyalty and taking care of family. And I learned that being put out to pasture is not always a bad thing. I’m glad that Daddy didn’t take Star to the sale barn. Star died at home, just like she deserved.