Most everyone has some event or individual in their past that acts as a turning point in their life; the kind of thing where you can’t really remember what you did before that, and you can’t imagine where you’d be if it hadn’t come along. For some people, this is an experience, like competition, sports, academics, or a certain high school or college class. For others, this is a person, like a spouse, child, parent or friend, who taught you and instilled a love for a certain thing deep down in your soul.
For me, it was this cow.
Now, to be fair to her, she was not a cow when I first met her. Actually, she was a freshly weaned young heifer, living in the feeder pen at our farm with the other steers and heifers we planned on fattening and slaughtering. Fortunately for her, a certain young 4-H member had been begging and pleading with his parents to start the 4-H year with a heifer project, in addition to a steer. Figuring that something cheap, to make sure I liked the project, was the way to go, my parents finally gave in (I can be quite persuasive) and allowed me to choose one of the three or four heifers we just brought in from the neighbours.
Her name was Duchess, and I have never looked back, not even a little. Duchess and I worked on all the things that a show heifer needs to know: Leading, standing, and foot placement. It immediately became clear that Duchess was not only patient, she was a quick study, and she and I became bosom pals. All through the winter of 2004-2005, we worked together to get ready for the summer shows, and she easily taught me more than I taught her.
Soon it became time for Duchess to be bred, because heifers need to calve close to their second birthday. Alas, Duchess had not exhibited a heat cycle by late spring, and, with no real information about her mother or siblings, we were afraid she may have been infertile. We had her reproductive tract evaluated by a veterinarian, and he declared all seemed to be in working order, so he prescribed a hormonal treatment to boost things along. Duchess cycled, and was subsequently bred by a loaned bull.
All through that summer of 2005, Duchess and I solidified our friendship through the Alberta junior show circuit. We went everywhere and we did everything. And we always, always, always came in dead last, in every conformation class. Duchess taught me how to lose very quickly, and I learned early on that losing with grace is just as important as winning with dignity, and I had lots of losing practice. For as much as we lost in conformation classes, though, we smoked the junior showmanship competition many times, and it was rare that she and I didn’t at least move on to junior showmanship champion classes.
The winter came and Duchess calved on time, but late compared to all of my friend’s heifers. Duchess had a beautiful black heifer calf, who was logically named Princess to match with her royal maternal lineage. Just as I had with Duchess, I worked with her calf and showed them as a two-year old pair, and then as a three-year old pair the following year. That year, I had a herd, which is made up of a three-year old and her calf, a two-year old and her calf, and a heifer. At the Provincial 4-H beef Heifer show that year, her last show ever, Duchess was finally awarded a banner, Reserve Provincial Champion Herd. She retired on top to the pastures.
Duchess became one of the most solid cows we have ever owned. She was far from pretty, with one botched dehorning job, a lazy eye, bulbous belly and mousy brown hair, but she had a bang-up calf every year and never missed a beat. Add to that, she was friendly and easy to be around all the time.
As with all lives, though, Duchess’ came to an end after I had moved to University. She had her final calf and quickly developed an untreatable variety of mastitis in one of her quarters, which quickly spread to infect the entire udder. Sadly, Duchess had to be euthanized soon thereafter. I lost one of my absolute best friends that day, and I was a country away.
However, I know that that was okay with Duchess because I was doing what she has inspired me to do: study Animal Science. As I sit here today, a Master’s student at that same University in Texas, I cannot imagine or dream of where I would have been without having Duchess as my first heifer. Would I have fallen so head-over-heels for beef cattle? Would I be working on methods to make beef cheaper, and more available for millions of hungry people the world over? I have no idea, but I know that I am doing these things because I had a heifer when I was 12, and her name was Duchess.