By Bill Stork, DVM
It was early spring 1985, at South Farms, University of Illinois. Late in the third year of my undergraduate education, I pondered my future. Having recently attended a local rodeo and seen the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona on TV, rodeo clown and matador were looking pretty good. Thanks to a deep thigh bruise and a gash in my pride, the dogged pursuit of a DVM would be right back on track.
The University of Wisconsin has the Memorial Union Terrace where students can relax with a fine beverage and watch the sunset over Lake Mendota, while listening to live reggae and blues bands. The basketball and hockey Badgers compete in the Kohl Center, and the football team in iconic Camp Randall Stadium.
While claiming no superiority, at the University of Illinois, we had the South Farms. A soft spring breeze through a biology lecture would remind students that just beyond the Assembly Hall were two farrow-to-finish swine operations, a sheep farm, a cow calf operation and a horse farm.
In Chemistry 101 you titrate acids and bases wearing safety glasses and a white coat. In Agriculture classes, you're gonna get organic, to the extent that your political science roommate may meet you at the door with a towel and a bar of soap. That said, they never failed to be eventful.
Four hours before 80,000 people would descend upon Memorial Stadium for the first Farm Aid concert, I was returning from lamb watch for my small ruminant class. Well before 9-11 security, I rode my bike through the gates and past the stage. In the pre-dawn fog a man, guitar on his knee, was singing "Knocking on Heaven's Door."
Thirty years later, a personal concert by Bob Dylan is a story to tell. At 21, doing calf check with Becky Bull was way more current.
You can say there are Ag majors, and there are farm kids. The former, I grew up in a town of 100,000 and worked at the Brush College Animal Hospital cleaning cages and surgical instruments. I counted minnows and night crawlers at Dave's Tackle Box and spent ten days on my uncle's beef farm. The latter, Becky grew up on an Angus farm, and showed cattle at the North American International Livestock Exposition.
By grace and good fortune, Becky and I were paired to check the cow herd as a unit of Beef Production 101. It was mid-April, 45F, and driving rain. She showed up in a cherry red F-350, with snow plow bracket, search lights and a grille the size of a movie screen. In the back was a 50-gallon diesel tank and galvanized tool box the width of the bed. She could do a C-section, brand a herd of cattle, or overhaul a John Deere 4020 without going to town. I drove my grandma's 1974 Plymouth Valiant, and brought a flashlight.
As we walked the pasture, occasionally a cow and calf would saunter through the high beams trained on as much of the landscape as we could capture. Bolts of lightning would flash the herd for unpredictable seconds at a time. Our flashlights were futile, as driving rain reflected the light right back at our retinas. As close as we could tell, everyone outside was ok. By our way of thinking, if there was action, it would be in the corn stalk bedding in the back of the lean-tos.
Half an hour in a rainstorm had only served to feature the Macon County Fairest of the Fair, 1983, at her finest. Seed cap backwards, hair tucked behind her ears, her thousand-watt smile and aqua green eyes shone like a café sign to a road-weary trucker.
As we passed under the shelter, the breath of a dozen cows, and thoughts of Becky, fogged my glasses instantly. Not more than three steps in, on my left flank appeared a white head, and I was launched like a beach ball at a Buffet concert by a 1200-pound Hereford.
Seconds before liftoff, my mind had been racing as to how I might segue calf watch into coffee and a donut. For the duration of flight, I was equally preoccupied, hoping my fingers would find space between the corrugated tin and the 2x6 cross member that supported the structure, lest I was assured another volley or two.
As I clung to the wall and a sliver of dignity, the cow pawed the bedding and snorted, as if I didn't get the message.
For Becky, it was just another day at the office. She squared her shoulders and raised her arms like a flagman at the finish of the Daytona 500. Summoning her inner Aretha Franklin, she pulled up a deep growl, "C'mon Na, You girls GIT! on outa heeaah and let that po' boy down off the wall."
Like a kid caught in the cookie jar, Hereford cow, ear tag 487, dropped her head in apology and ambled back to her baby. Trembling, I let myself back to the ground.
"You ok?" Becky deadpanned.
Copping her calm, I brushed myself off and shrugged, loosely alluding to my lack of vision, and answered "Oh yeah, no problem."