Fans squeaking, whispers in the crowd, cattle humming to one another. Showtime.
Emily woke to the sound of her alarm ringing in her ear. 8am, the hour she would awake to every summer day to head down to the barn to work with her 4-H calf. She stumbled into the old barn to hear the sound of her impatient calf bawling for his breakfast. “I’m comin’, Popcorn! Hang on!” she called to her fat steer. As she hauled buckets of feed to her needy four-legged child, she pondered how different her life would be without him.
Her 4-H cattle adventure began last year while watching her friend show her calves at the county fair. Megan and Emily had been great friends for nearly five years and had been neighbors for even longer. She could remember the cool summer nights helping Megan walk her calves around the wide backyard and helping around the chaotic barn on show day, all the while igniting a spark that would push her towards becoming a showman herself.
Megan’s family raised Simmental cattle and she had grown up around them since she was old enough to walk. Once Emily became friends with her, she soon started learning how these interesting animals behaved. Apart from their skittish behavior and sometimes rowdy disposition, she soon became accustomed to them and was inspired by Megan to show one herself.
The opportunity arose when Joyce, Megan’s grandma, started to bustle about with the pregnant cows. In the spring, the cows began birthing their calves. Emily loved watching them skipping around and butting heads with one another while they were growing up and enjoyed playing with them herself. Everything was running smoothly that spring until one of the cows developed mastitis, a disease that affects the udders of a nursing cow. Because her udder started to swell, her calf fell to a disadvantage because it couldn’t nurse as easily. This calf had always stuck out like a sore thumb because he differed from the normal jet black color most Simmentals expressed. The scrawny calf had an all black body with white “socks” on all four feet, a white head with black ears, black circles around his eyes, and a small black and pink speckled nose. Megan and Joyce loaded the cow and calf on the trailer and brought them to the barn closer to home to monitor the mother. Emily would visit the calf on a daily basis and felt sympathetic for the poor little animal as it bawled at his mother for more milk only to discover that her udder was as dry as the desert. Emily sprinted to the house to get Joyce. She began to panic that the calf would die and was sure it wouldn’t survive a week without proper nutrition. Thankfully, the years of experience Joyce had under her belt brought solace to Emily and assured her the calf was sure to live. She explained to her that this problem was unfortunately common in older cows. When this happened, calves would have to be bottle fed with formula. “It’s a lot like baby formula, but for cattle.” Joyce explained. Emily was relieved her new friend wasn’t in any danger. She jogged back to the barn and wrapped her arms around the little calf whispering, “It’s okay, buddy, you’ll be just fine.” Megan was in the neighboring pen scattering clean straw when Emily called,
”What should we name him?”
“Grandma suggested to call him Outlaw, but I don’t care for it. Just because he’s black and white doesn’t make him a criminal,” explained Megan.
“How about Oreo?” Emily said.
“Yeah! Look at his face, it looks like he has two Oreo cookies around his eyes!”
Since then, the calf gained the unforgettable notion of being named Oreo.
The following week, Emily rode her 4-wheeler to the barn to visit him only to find that his mother was absent.
“Where’s Oreo’s mother?” she questioned.
“We couldn’t return her to the herd. Her udder was demolished and she would never be able to raise a calf on her own again. We had to take her to the sale barn.” explained Joyce.
Devastated by the loss of Oreo’s mother, Emily knew he would become extremely lonely without a trace of another animal in the barn. With Megan’s help, she decided to halter break the calf and treat him as if his mother were still coddling him. Everyday was reserved for feeding, watering, and brushing him until be became so accustomed to people it was like having a 600 pound black and white dog following everyone around begging for attention each day growing more and more along with becoming more mischievous. The first few days when summer blossomed over the flat fields and the days became humid and long, the calves were brought to the barn to be selected for the county fair. Both Megan and her brother picked their favorites of the herd while Emily wished she could claim her own. Before she could daydream about showing, Joyce tiptoed behind her with Oreo at the end of a lead rope. He instantly recognized the little girl and started trotting towards her humming in his low, content sound. Confused, she babbled, ”What are you doing?”
“I don’t believe anyone is more suited to have this calf than you. If you want to show him this year he’s yours.” said Joyce, wearing a wide smile.
Beside herself with excitement, Emily threw her arms around Oreo and buried her teary eyed face into his soft neck. “You’re going to the fair, boy!”
Each day after that she would jump out of bed mesmerized by the thought that she would show in the ring living her dream in only a few weeks. The build up to show day was intense for everyone, especially Oreo. Clipping his hair, giving baths daily, walking in countless circles around the front yard on days where the heat seemed to loathe rest, took a toll on the patience of the calf. Emily would encounter a few of his temper tantrums every so often and handled them very well. She knew this calf inside and out and was more than prepared for the big day.
Show day started early that cool, Wednesday morning of the cattle show. Parents were bustling every which way, nervous 4-Hers paced the aisles, and anxious cattle bellowed to their barn mates only a few yards away. The day was promised to be hectic yet unforgettable. The announcer was booming across the intercom preparing the holding ring for the upcoming class. Emily walked Oreo into the grooming chute ready to comb, blow dry, and spray his hair.
“Class 36, please bring your cattle to the holding ring.”
She combed his hair anticipating her upcoming class nervous and excited for the outcome.
“Class 37, please bring your cattle to the holding ring.”
She took off Oreo’s worn, rope halter and replaced it with a shiny, leather show halter.
“Class 38, please bring your cattle to the holding ring.”
She grabbed her show stick, removed Oreo from the chute, and calmly walked him through the sea of chutes and cattle to the exhibition building. The calves in the holding ring starting becoming antsy bellowing to fellow calves and pacing around the fence. Emily glanced up and spotted Megan and Joyce in the stands eagerly waiting for her outstanding showmanship performance.
She stepped into the ring towing Oreo took a breath and could only hear her heartbeat in her ears. She forgot about the people in the stands and all she could intake was the mammoth fans squeaking high above and the deep, calming breaths of Oreo behind her. She kept her eyes glued on the judge as he motioned her into his placing of the class. The neighboring calves around Oreo began to jump around and escape from their 4-Hers. Emily thought Oreo would run for sure, his playful nature couldn’t resist skipping around with the other calves in the ring. She looked at him with desperation in her eyes, “Please don’t run” she thought. “Please!”. Unexpectedly, Oreo completely ignored the rambunctious calves and looked as though he thought they were fools. Emily let out a breath of relief as the judge handed her a 3rd place ribbon and the line exited the ring. She was greeted at the gate by her family along with Megan’s family as well.
“You were great out there! Outstanding job, Emily!” beamed everyone around her. She smiled from ear to ear beaming with the performance of her calf in the ring.
Her last hurdle was the auction. The imminent doom of her calf being sold to a slaughter house gave her chills. She knew this was the way of life and couldn’t afford to let it tear apart. The auction day came and Emily became emotional to let go of her best friend. “You’ve done a great job, Oreo” she cooed to him. “You’ll be fine”. She watched as the ring men loaded him into the truck standing at a distance holding his empty, worn down rope halter with tears welling in her eyes. The last she saw him, he turned his black and white face towards her and hummed comfortingly to her as if to say, “Don’t cry. It’s been a great summer with you.”
Reflecting on her past year with her calf, she was prepared to begin the long summer days with yet another big baby she would have to let go of. Watching her current calf, Popcorn, scarf down his feed, she reminded herself that every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears she put into these affectionate animals would pay off in the end with more ribbons and more great memories.