My father started transitioning the same time as Bruce Jenner. It aroused the curiosity of the other farmers. Was the process difficult? How long would it take? What should they call him afterward? They tried to hold their jokes in his presence, but it’s easy to imagine what they said behind his back. Some were supportive of his decision, while others didn’t know how to take it. It was obvious they didn’t look at him the same way.
“It was time for a change,” my father would say, trying to explain himself. “It was time to go from dairy to beef.”
The Hereford and Angus crosses were kept in the old freestall barn. Every time I called from abroad he updated me on the new calvings. He also made it clear that he was waiting for me to come home at Christmas to help tag them. “Just so you know,” he said, “They’re not small.”
When the day came there was silence as we suited up in Carhartts and knit caps, betraying the challenges ahead. In television series, medieval soldiers would drink mead or pray to their pagan gods before going into battle. Instead, we only slipped on our boots and trudged through the snow.
I carried out the tagger and a sleeve of numbers. Holstein dams stood with resignation as their bulky and colorful progeny shook their udders below them. The freestall barn had not yet been adjusted to accommodate its new clientele, and so many of the young beefers stood in the alley, having slipped underneath the brisket railing to chew at the round bales from the other side. I soon realized that I had made my size calculations in dairy and not in beef, and they indeed were not small.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked. When no one answered it became clear that there was no plan.
The Buffalo Bills, our family’s NFL team, hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999. We would sit on the sofa and watch them miss open-field tackles and say, “Sure, I could have done that.” I don’t know if Le’Veon Bell is swifter than a Hereford heifer, but we didn’t fare much better. Herding dairy calves is a game of angles, and if you can surround one they often concede and brace for capture.
We thought we had some of the beef calves at first…until they would lunge into someone’s chest and knock them to the ground.
The beef calf is like the troublemaker in class. The look in their eyes is not one of intelligence, but defiance. They’ll cut in the lunch line if they want to. The other kids shake their heads, but also kind of respect them. The beef calf’s wide-eyed mulish expression is seldom seen in dairy calves. Dairy calves sit near the blackboard and more or less do what the teacher asks. At the country fair the beef barn and dairy barn were far apart. The dairy people seldom went into the beef barn. I think it was the look in the beef people’s eyes.
In both medieval Irish and Nordic traditions their best warriors were known to go into “berserker” mode, in which they were transformed by nearly inhuman fits of aggression and battle-frenzy. That was the best way to describe my mother. She would stalk a beef calf with the halter ready and then lunge at it when it tried to bolt. She would curse it if she missed, and try to hang on if she didn’t. I’m 32, I thought. I have degrees and I have been places. None of that had prepared me to see my middle-aged mother dragged across the concrete by a Hereford cross.
It wasn’t pretty, but we got most of them tagged. The design of the freestall barn made it an awkward place to set up gates and create a “system,” so it became mostly waiting for a beefer to turn the wrong way and the three of us piling on top of it. The calf would bawl as if we were electrocuting it to find out where it had buried the money, but once it had a number in its ear and we let it go, it would stand at the round bale and eat like nothing happened.
Whether dairy or beef, there is one universal truth in these types of tasks: the biggest animal is always the last one to catch. My mother had done good work, but was now leaning against the railing and heavily bruised beneath the Carhartts, and my father, too, was starting to heave. The large red heifer would be mine alone. It was like seeing the other general across the battlefield and moving towards each other with the swords raised, except this heifer instead trotted ahead of me around the barn until it allowed itself to be cornered. Then it turned and faced me with its wild eyes.
It leapt up and I lunged ahead and for the briefest moment we were in a man-beast embrace, fur against skin, will against will. I felt the animal inside me rise up to the challenge. My boots gripped the concrete; its hot breath covered my face. It struck me then that this is what farming offered that I could not find elsewhere: the chance to square up and measure yourself and see if it is enough. All of a sudden a berserker gene sparked inside me and I took it to the pavement.
There was the quick click of the ear tagger and the victory was won.
Although my father has embraced his new identity, there are still some logistics to work out. As the biblical passage more or less goes, “When I was a dairy farmer I thought and reasoned like a dairy farmer. When I became a beef farmer, I set aside dairy-ish ways.”
His new occupation is a whole different animal, so to speak. It’s going to take some time and adjustment, but I think he’ll be alright. I can tell by the look in his eyes.