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August 4, 2012

The Short Sweet Life of Bessie

by Anne Paddock

In Iowa most people are either growing food (corn, soybeans, wheat) or raising animals (cattle, pigs, chickens) or doing a bit of both on the farm.  Russ and Beverly were both born and raised in central Iowa, marrying after high school and settling into a small place down the road from the farm where Russ spent his childhood. When Russ’s father passed away from cancer, Russ and Beverly moved back to the farm and took over the operation, allowing Russ’s mother to enjoy her grandchildren, bridge club, and church socials.  Married nearly four decades, Russ and Beverly spent a lifetime growing corn and soybeans in the nutrient rich black soil and managing a small cattle operation on the remaining acreage.

In late Spring and early Summer, cattle operators focus on breeding. Normally separated from the herd, the Belgian Blue bulls are allowed to graze with the cows although grazing isn’t foremost on their mind. Instead, being the top bull and impregnating the cows occupy most of their time.

Calves are born in late Winter/early Spring (after a nine month gestation period) and stay with their mums for up to 5 months at which point, they are weaned and separated.  The first two nights after calves are separated from their mums are blanketed with cries – a tough tune to listen to for a first timer on a farm but the status quo for seasoned farmers.  Last year during the “separatin time,” a thunderstorm came through central Iowa causing the calves to huddle together near the barn. One young calf was so frightened, she jumped the fence and ran though the screen door of Russ and Beverly’s mud room. Lying underneath the laundry and crumpled drying rack was a 300 pound calf shivering in fear. Russ’s first reaction was to herd the calf out and fix the damage to the door but Beverly sensed the animal’s stress and persuaded Big Russ (as his friends called him) to let the calf be.  Beverly calmed the animal by sitting next to it and soothing it with gentle strokes along its back until it fell asleep.

The sun shone the next day and Beverly led the young calf to the fenced field to graze with the other calves but within 30 minutes, the calf was at the back door staring at Beverly with those big doe eyes and long eyelashes as she cleaned up the mess. At first irritated, Beverly gradually warmed to the animal and realized the calf didn’t want to be with the herd so she allowed her to stay in the back yard. But that night, the rains came again and the calf was at the door “mawwwing” to come in. Fearing the young calf would go through the screen door again, Beverly allowed her back in the house. The calf loved the mud room and wanted nothing more than to spend rainy nights huddled next to the warm dryer and having her face stroked by Beverly or Big Russ who took to calling her “Bessie,” treating her more like a dog than a cow.  Bessie never tried to leave the mudroom to enter the kitchen or family room and never had an accident in the house,  which is why Beverly allowed her to come in on stormy nights throughout the Fall.

Bessie became quite the farm pet, galloping across the yard to greet Beverly when her car pulled into the driveway. If Beverly had an apple or a pear in the grocery bags, she would often give Bessie a piece of fruit to enjoy. Satisfied with the treat, Bessie would go back to grazing or hanging out in the backyard, sleeping near the house on calm nights and in the mudroom when storms erupted. This went on for about 6 months and Bessie continued to grow weighing in at nearly 500 pounds as she neared her first birthday. One day, Russ told Beverly it was “bout time” Bessie moved on and Beverly agreed. Bessie could barely fit through the door and with the new calves being born, it was time to make way for the next herd.

A few weeks later, Russ and Beverly’s daughter inquired about Bessie’s whereabouts and Beverly said they sold her to Henry, a farmer down the road who used her as his slaughter cow (most farmers raise one cow each year for their own consumption). Russ and Beverly used another heifer as their own slaughter cow because as Beverly explained,  “Seeing as Bessie was like a pet; we just couldn’t eat her.”

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