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Sneezing Cows

Sneezing Cows


By Bill Stork, DVM


Happy New Year, and welcome to 2014.


At some point back in October this rank-amateur piece of small town pop psychological feel-good rambling commemorated its third year. By my way of thinking, it is overdue (like the registration sticker on my license plate), to offer up some heartfelt gratitude.


First, to my editor, Mittsy Voiles, without whom any fifth grade English teacher would scratch this thing with enough red ink to float a 16-foot jon boat. I am at least as grateful to readers like, but not limited to, Don and Mary Grant, who will occasionally comment. The notion that we may have rendered a chuckle, a tear or someone may have seen beauty in life, is the ultimate reward. Fortunate, as we have yet to earn our first nickel.


Finally, and foremost, I am eternally grateful - in chronological order - to John-Boy Walton and Michael Perry. Thursday nights in the 70’s I would push back from the table, clear dishes for Mom and help Dad in the garage, double-time, to ensure I was in front of CBS by 7:00. Minutes after Richard Thomas had scratched the morals of the week onto the parchment with his fountain pen ‘neath the light of a single candle, I would scamper upstairs to my own diary.


In the 35 years to follow, I found myself in a perpetual cycle of going to school, graduating, getting educated, and meeting the most amazing people imaginable. The notion of writing was little more than a passing thought. Four years ago I read the book I always intended to write: a near biblical account of rural humanity called Population 485. This column and the blog from which it is extracted was born.


For anyone mildly entertained by our little column, but not familiar with Michael Perry, I ask that you put this paper down. Use the ten minutes to read Mike’s Sunday column in the Wisconsin State Journal called “Roughneck Grace”, or his blog at Next to your “throne” keep a copy of “Off Main Street” or “Truck”. If you don’t find yourself belly laughing and crying, I’ll buy the books back.


Mike was raised on a dairy farm in Northern Wisconsin; he and his family still reside near Eau Claire. He makes his living touching people. Writing, telling stories, and singing in his band “The Long Beds,” Mike is as poetic as profound, setting forth such enduring wisdom as:


“Never stand behind a sneezing cow.”


For anyone who has ever so much as set boot on a dairy farm, this seems pretty intuitive. By way of observation, and confirmed by Rick Schultz, Jake Untz and Ryan Haack - dairymen with collectively a century of experience - cows are not known to telegraph. Careful scientific research, in the sense that I asked every farmer I talked to last Thursday, concludes that the likelihood of being pasted is in direct proportion to the size of your herd and time spent in the barn. There are a few confounding variables, such as condition of your free stalls, the cow’s diet, and your personal foot speed.


The Holstein (or to preempt an uprising from Carrie and Claire), the Dairy Cow has been referred to as “The Foster Mother of the Human Race.” Centuries of conscientious breeding has rendered an animal that can produce in excess of 15 gallons of milk per day. She eats more than 100 pounds of feed and drinks 50 gallons of water.


Well, what goes in, must come out.


Cows live protected from moisture and draft on sand free-stalls, designed to encourage them to lay, and are groomed at each milking. In order to keep them clean, the bed is elevated by at least 8 inches. In pursuit of ultimate cow comfort, we have managed to position her “outlet”, depending upon age, breed and facilities and adjusted for the stature of the farmer… about ear-hole high.


Sparing the details of bovine respiratory physiology, sneezing is a nearly spontaneous act. A forceful exhale against a closed glottis can propel 12 pounds of “effluent” at a velocity and viscosity sufficient to penetrate every pore. In the absence of a seasonally appropriate Green Bay Packers or drug company freebie hat, it will saturate you to the scalp. To exist within a 120-degree radius and 6 feet is to be in range. If you look down and find your bootlace untied... step away before retying it. You can take my word, or ask Charlie Untz.


On Monday, December 23rd, I spent two hours behind no fewer than 1000 cows, each and every one eligible to sneeze without warning or provocation. The Gods and Odds of bovine respiration and digestion were kind on that day. I was spared a direct hit, which is not to be mistaken for “show room clean”. I wished Rick and Kevin a Merry Christmas, scrubbed my boots and strode through the blowing snow to my truck.


I had four farm calls to go, it was three days before Christmas, and Boom-truck, Dusty and Go-Go (aka “big butt”), were short on horse feed. Farm and Barn was exactly en route. The dictum of the gentleman farmer and old school veterinarian requires you never appear in public with enough evidence of excrement to be detected by CSI; a noble notion, which I work hard to uphold. On this day, in the driving snow, disrobing in the slop of the parking lot was going to cost more time than I had. Not to mention, I was picking horse feed from a farm store, not hand lotion from Bath and Body Works.


What I failed to consider is, it was three days before Christmas, and school was out. The Salvation Army bell ringer was dressed in full on Santa regalia and moms were pouring through the front door, hand in hand with daughters.


Unfazed, moving with purpose and thinking hard, I helped an elderly farmer throw a dozen bags of barn lime in his truck, and pilfered his four wheel flat-bed cart. Sparing the public exposure at the front door, like Eddie Lacy waiting for his blockers, I paused as the electric OUT door sprung open.


Wishing Christmas greetings to one and all, I shot past the only closed cash register and across the head lanes, straight for the power tools, certain I would find equally soiled brethren. Instead, there was a traffic-jam of moms and daughters. In solidarity with some really lucky fathers, I had to smile as they loaded the DeWalt 20-volt lithium ion drill and impact wrench package. Nevertheless, I was forced to re-route.


Lowering my head like an ostrich, I shot past the paint section to the safety of tires and batteries. The waters parted, and I could see clear to the farm feed and mineral blocks. Certain they couldn’t be serious about the 300lb weight limit, I threw on 7 bags of “Veterinarian Approved Safe Choice,” and reversed my path.


The register had extra room for wide loads, and was Command Central for a bespectacled lady named Dianne, with a permanent smile. Only two guys paying cash for a pocket full of gate pins and a battery for their 4-wheeler stood between me and the parking lot.


I threw three weeks' worth of equine vittles in the back seat and headed West on County 19, pleased with myself and convinced I had left “not a trace”. Meanwhile, a four foot buffer zone around a slow settling vapor trail, from farm supplies through auto parts, would suggest the contrary.

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