We pulled into the driveway of the livestock auction house, peddlers of customized wooden benches watching from the sidelines as our white flat bed truck and borrowed cattle trailer rattled across the gravel.
As Dad maneuvered the truck into the parking area and I swung my legs down onto the grass, we could already hear a chorus of animals bellowing from the barn.
I had never been here before, although I had been begging Dad to take me to a cow auction for years. I had been to one at a farm before, but I had never been to one at the business-like auction house that sold livestock every week. As we walked inside, it was clear that the building hasn’t been changed in years. The boxy wooden bleachers and faded fold-down seats that surround the auction ring are the same seats that have been residing over the sales ring since my father attended auctions here as a kid with his father.
We climbed up the bleachers and went out the side door that leads to the area where the animals are held before the auction starts. There is a bridge that walks out above the pens so that the potential buyers can look out on the animals. They are organized according to types and ages. This pen holds a gaggle of young calves, still on milk. This pen holds the feeder calves, a little older and a little wiser. This pen holds the old milk cows. This pen the inquisitive goats. This pen the sleepy pigs. There are empty pens for bulls – single pens just big enough for one animal to prevent fights. But there are no bulls at the sale today, so the only fighting to be seen comes from the giant black dairy cow in the back, jockeying for the best position in the pen.
As I looked down at the mass of animals, I couldn’t help but understand why my mother turned down the invitation to come to the auction with us. She had shook her head when I had said that she could come with us: “I don’t really want to go and see all of the critters that are headed to their death.”
My father and I were there to take home some young feeder calves to fill our barn, to fatten up and spoil. But a lot of these animals would be heading straight from these pens to the butcher’s. And while I am perfectly okay with this, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. Especially for the dairy cows. It wasn’t long ago that we sent away our whole herd of dairy cows to a sale like this. And there are some – my beautiful Susie and my buddy Holly Beanie – that I hated to think of standing in those pens. My father looked over at the pen of dairy cows – other people’s Susies and Holly Beanies – as we walked past.
“Well girls,” he said, “you’ve done a good job.”
We took a closer look at the pens of feeder calves and took note of the calves that we did not want and those that we did, then headed back to the well-aged bleachers and took a seat.
The sale started with the goats. They pranced out into the arena, one by one, with their auction number stickers stuck directly to their foreheads. More agile and quick-witted than the cows, the goats will take off their numbers if they are placed on their sides, so they rest comically in between their eyes. Some have spots, some have floppy ears, some are full of mischief, some are just looking for the exit. We commented on their antics and made observations, but we were not there for goats.
Then the little calves came in. Their weight flashed above their heads as the bidding started. Sturdy black and white Holsteins, little chocolate colored Jersey-crosses. They stepped cautiously out from one door and skipped through the next. My father’s interest perked up when he saw the older ones walk through the door, the ones that looked old enough to be off milk. Finally, as the last calf waltzed through the door, he couldn’t resist temptation. He bid and emerged the owner of the last Holstein bull calf.
Then in came the feeder calves, the reason why we were there. We looked these over carefully, watching for breathing problems, bad feet, or bad eyes – all signals of things that could cause trouble when we got them home. My father bid on several. In the end, we emerged the owner of five calves of various weights and sizes. We loaded them up into the trailer and took them home, where they were unloaded into the free stall barn, watered and fed.
I headed out to see them the next morning, staring at me with wide round eyes from the gate and bellowing for a little bit of grain and some hay. I scratched the littlest one behind the ears – he has been christened Edgar. He reached out and grabbed the corner of my shirt in his mouth. I love the cows and I miss little things like this when I’m not home.
You learn a lot of things growing up on a farm, about growing your own food, about animals, about plants, about life, about death. And there’s a lot of love that goes into it.
Love that can be found in that twinge of sadness at the sight of a stranger’s old dairy cows, in the excitement of filling the trailer with new faces, in the joy that comes from a slobbered on shirt dotted with bits of grain.