Humor: Cow Turning
For many, springtime marks the start of the lawn-care season. When I was a youngster, the advent of grass meant that it was time to step into the crucial role of cow turner.
Cow tipping is mostly an urban legend; I’ve never heard of anyone giving a cash bonus to a bovine who gave especially speedy service. Cow turning, on the other hand, is a very real activity.
When springtime greened the countryside, we would extend the life of our pasture by grazing our 25 Holsteins in the road ditches that ran past our farm.
It generally took two kids to form an effective cow-turning team. We prepared for this duty by arming ourselves with sticks scavenged from our grove. The proper length of stick was determined by the size of the kid. A good rule of thumb was to select a stick that was roughly as long as its user was tall. Thus equipped, we would sprint out our farmstead’s driveway and half a mile down the adjoining gravel road.
Once the cow turners were in position, the cow pen would be opened. Our Holsteins bolted from their enclosure like racehorses leaping out of the starting gate. A black-and-white runaway freight train of two dozen three-quarter-ton bovines would rush toward the cow turners.
Few creatures are more exuberant than a milk cow who has just discovered that she is free. The cows bucked and bellowed, their head and tails held high, acting more like wild animals than domesticated cattle. Being a cow turner was not for the faint of heart.
We had precious little time to steel ourselves for the onslaught of galloping bovines. We would gather materials to assist us in our cow-turning efforts, things such as pebbles and dirt clods. Cow turners needed to have strong throwing arms.
As the charging horde of Holsteins neared, we would whoop and wave our sticks in an effort to convince the cows that we were too crazy to mess with. If this strategy didn’t work, the pebbles and dirt clods would be deployed. Both cow and throwers were astonished whenever a direct hit occurred.
It was essential that the cows be stopped and turned back. If they got past us, they may have kept going until they reached the Gulf of Mexico. It would have been extremely inconvenient to milk them at that distance.
Our frenzied shouting and waving eventually persuaded the herd to stop. Abruptly realizing that they were standing amidst a lush smorgasbord, the cows began to gobble grass at a pace often associated with speed-eating contests.
After the initial cow-turning excitement subsided, boredom set in. We couldn’t abandon our post and with smartphones decades in the future, we were forced to create our own entertainment.
We searched for four-leaf clovers and discovered that they were indeed exceptionally rare. We would stretch a blade of grass between our upright thumbs and blow through the gap. With practice, we became adept at making a noise best described as “dyspeptic duck.”
Breaking a milkweed stem would reveal its sticky white sap. The sap looked similar to milk, so a taste test was conducted. This was an experiment that only had to be conducted once.
Batting practice would be held using pebbles and our sticks. The crack of a solid hit was followed by an imaginary soundtrack: “It’s a line drive to center! It’s going, it’s going... It’s a grand slam for the dairy farm rookie!”
If a car approached, we would officiously inform its driver that we were grazing our cows in the ditches and advised the motorist to proceed with caution. The driver usually opted to take a different route. The fresh cow pies dotting the road may have had something to do with this.
After a few hours, the cows would begin to lie down and ruminate. This was our cue to start easing them toward the farmstead.
The cows would stroll casually back into their pen, behaving in a manner that was the polar opposite of the way they had acted when they were released that morning. Full bellies can tame the wildest of beasts.
When we milked the cows that evening, we could smell the sharp tang of grass on their breaths. It was like being inside a giant fermentation vat full of lawn clippings.
At suppertime, I would glance out at the road as I drank a glass of cold, fresh milk, tasting the grass that had been growing in the ditches only hours earlier. I would raise my glass in a silent salute to the worthy challengers we had successfully turned that day and whom, with any luck, we would turn again tomorrow.
Jerry Nelson’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.