A Full Belly Comes to those Who Seek It 

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Preface:  

This short story comes from my family’s lore, and I write it now because it has implications for the current times. Today young mothers are having extreme difficulty in obtaining commercial baby formula to feed their infants. The medical profession and the social media “fact-checker” caution them not to resort to homemade recipes. So what are they supposed to feed a kid if there is no breast milk and no baby formula?

***

Annie Coats was born in January 1880. She was the oldest of a family of eight children. This story takes place on a small farm outside of Juliaetta, Idaho, a small town in the southern panhandle of western Idaho. It is the spring of 1891.

“Annie, we will be in town all day today as your father takes care of some banking business, and then we have to buy supplies for the spring planting,” Sarah Coats explained to her daughter. “You will be fine with the kids, and Mollie is old enough to help you out if there are any problems. After you kids help your father with the morning chores, you just keep everyone in the house. I will nurse Tommy before we leave, so he should be okay until we get home in the evening. You can mash some carrots for him at lunchtime.”

“Okay,” Annie said. “But what do I do if you don’t get home?”

“Nothing is going to happen,” her mother said. “We just can’t take all you kids with us on this trip.”

Annie, Mollie, who was almost nine, and Lewis, who was six, went with their father to the barn to do the morning chores while Sarah nursed Tommy and tended to the two younger girls. The final two family members would not arrive for another few years.

Thomas, Annie’s father, and Sarah crawled into the buckboard, and Thomas snapped the rains against Old Joe’s rump. 

“Giddy up,” he commanded the team.

“We will see you kids this evening,” Sarah yelled back to the kids. “You mind your sister. She is the boss today.” 

The kids stood at the cabin door and watched the wagon disappear as the trail to town turned into the trees.

“Okay, mom wanted us to stay inside today,” Annie said as she ushered the kids into the cabin. “Mom has a full basket of darning to get done, and it’s time you guys learned how to do some of the stuff around the house.”

The day wore on, and the little kids tried to be helpful, but Annie learned that sometimes it is easier to do things yourself than to have little hands helping.

At lunchtime, Annie boiled a carrot and a couple of potatoes. That was served to the kids along with some ham that she had trimmed off the new ham hanging in the smokehouse.

She smashed the carrot into a mush with some added butter. Tommy started to reject Annie’s attempts to spoon some of the carrot mush into his mouth, but he must have realized that it was all he would get.

As the afternoon turned into evening, Annie spent more and more time outside, watching for the wagon.

“Mom said they would be home this evening,” Mollie said. “Tommy is getting hungry, and I don’t think you can nurse him.”

***

In town, Thomas and Sarah were putting the last of the supplies into the wagon when Sarah heard a ‘snap.’

“What was that?” Sarah asked.

Thomas walked around the wagon, and there it was, a broken spoke in the right rear wheel.

“We can’t haul this load home without fixing that wheel,” Thomas said. “I guess I better go talk with Josh at the livery stable.”

“Tom, I can fix that wheel, but not until morning,” Josh said as he pumped the bellows to his forge. “I promised Mel I would get this job done tonight.”

“We have the kids home alone, and the baby will be starving if he doesn’t get to nurse his mother tonight,” Thomas said. 

“Sorry, Tom,” Josh said. “It can’t be helped. You can pull the wagon over here and put your horses in a stall. I have a small room in the back that you and the missus can use. It ain’t much, but it is better than paying the hotel.”

“Okay, I guess the kids will survive,” Thomas said. “Annie is pretty smart, and she will figure something out for the baby.”

***

“We need to get the animals fed before dark,” Annie said. “Lewis, you and Sarah, come give me a hand. Mollie can stay and take care of Tommy and Lillie.”

Annie was rushing through the chores to get back in the house and figure out what she was going to feed Tommy. She thought she could try to mix up some flour and water. Their milk cow was getting ready to calve, and they wouldn’t have milk again for another couple of weeks.

When Annie got to the pigpen, she noticed the sow laid out on her side with eight little piglets nursing. She watched her for a moment, thinking.

“Sarah, you run to the house and have Mollie bring Tommy out here,” Annie said. “And have her bring an old blanket. And hurry!”

Little Sarah was off like a shot. 

“Lewis, we need to spread some new straw down in this pigpen,” Annie said. “And we need to be careful not to disturb the old sow.”

When Mollie arrived with Tommy and the other kids, Annie and Lewis had just finished bedding down the pigpen. Annie was standing in the pen.

“Hand me Tommy and the blanket,” she instructed Mollie.

“What are you going to do?” Mollie asked.

“Tommy needs some milk, and this sow is the only girl on the place giving milk,” Annie said. “I will be careful, but Tommy is going to nurse this sow.”

Annie took Tommy to the middle of the line-up of piglets. She moved two piglets from the middle of the pack to the sides. She spread out the blanket and laid Tommy down beside the piglets in the middle of the group.

The old sow didn’t seem to mind as Annie stripped some milk from a teat into Tommy’s mouth. She pushed Tommy’s mouth against the teat, and he hooked on and started sucking.

Annie sat back and relaxed, watching the sow and Tommy. The piglets that had been moved to the side were starting to fight for a better position. The hind teats were not the most favorable. When one of the piglets pushed against Tommy, Annie began to intervene, but she didn’t have to do anything. Tommy pushed the piglet away. He wasn’t going to miss this meal.

When Annie felt Tommy was getting full, she picked him up and brushed him off before handing him back across the fence to Mollie.

“Now, what are we going to have for supper?” Little Sarah asked.

“We are going to have eggs and maybe a potato,” Annie said.

“Lewis doesn’t like eggs,” Mollie said.

“I will scramble them, and I have a little of the ham left from lunch that I and cut up and put in the eggs,” Annie said.

“But Lewis doesn’t like eggs,” Mollie said.

“Scrambled eggs and ham with some fried potatoes are what we are having for dinner,” Annie said. “If Lewis doesn’t want any, I guess he is just not hungry enough.”

The kids returned to the house and cleaned up Tommy. Annie fixed a supper of scrambled eggs and ham with some fried potatoes. Lewis had figured out that this was all there was, and he ate his dinner with the other kids.

***

Morning came, and Tommy was hungry. Annie made another trip to the pigpen with him, and he was an old pro this morning. Snuggling into the line-up of piglets and fighting for his teat.

With the wagon wheel fixed, Thomas and Sarah pointed Old Joe toward home.

“I am worried to death,” Sarah said. “Tommy will be starved by the time we get there. And I will feel better, getting some of this milk drained from my breasts.”

The kids were dancing outside the cabin door as the wagon came into view. 

Sarah took Tommy from Annie and headed for her rocking chair with a towel.

“He will hardly nurse,” Sarah said. “What did you feed him when I was gone?”

“We just made do with what was available,” Annie answered.

Epilogue:

Tommy survived his meals with pig milk and grew into adulthood with no significant problems. Annie showed her pioneer spirit and ingenuity by using the only milk available to her at the time. 

The Beard

D. E. Larsen, DVM

There was a fresh dusting of snow on the road as I pulled into the back of the clinic. It was early, but I had just finished treating a cow with milk fever.

Don, the other associate veterinarian in the Enumclaw clinic, came through the door before eight.

“I’m thinking we should grow beards,” Don said as he looked through the morning appointment schedule. “I was at the sale barn yesterday, and many of the guys are growing them for the bi-centennial. What do you think?”

This was February in 1976, and the weather was cold for western Washington. I had been working here for almost a year, and most of the dairymen accepted my services. 

“It’s cold enough that a beard might be a good thing,” I said. “I think Sandy would be okay with it.”

“Well, I didn’t shave this morning,” Don said as he collected his invoices for the morning schedule.

***

That was the start of the beard. In those years, my beard came in thick and heavy. It quickly got longer than Sandy’s liking, but she was tolerant, thinking that it would be gone after July fourth.

When we visited Sweet Home and met with the bank and Jim Stock to arrange for the clinic’s construction, I was in a full beard, and I would guess that I was close to the only person in town with a beard.

As things turned out, we moved to Sweet Home shortly after Derek was born in May, our fourth child. And, not wanting to look like a hippie to new clients, I shaved without giving it much thought.

***

When the weather turned cold in the fall of that first year in Sweet Home, I quit shaving and grew a full beard again.

Sandy tolerated it, and there were no clients who objected. Masking for surgery was a bit of an issue. I would use a hood to cover my hair and face, and the standard surgical mask sealed against the hood with no problem.

I shaved in the late spring and summer months for several years and grew a beard in the fall, winter, and early spring months.

***

It was a warm spring day when I pulled into the driveway of the Marble ranch. I was scheduled to do pregnancy exams on their cow herd. It was one of my large herds. Large for western Oregon, but small compared to some of the herds we checked when I was in school in Colorado. Checking over four hundred cows by rectal exam tested one’s endurance. My herds in Sweet Home were usually less than a hundred cows, with a few herds over that number.

I liked the work for a couple of reasons. The pace was slow enough that we had lots of time to discuss any number of herd health issues. We would discuss breeding strategies. I liked to have a herd shoot for a forty-two-day calving season. That was two cycles for a cow. I was pretty good at pregnancy exams. When checking cows from forty-five to ninety days of pregnancy, I could get within plus or minus five days with a rectal exam.

Pregnancy diagnosis and aging that pregnancy took practice. Actually, it took a lot of practice. The first step was to retract the uterus. This was not difficult with an early pregnancy. But after ninety days, it became more difficult, and a uterus that was over four months pregnant could not be retracted.

Once the uterus was retracted, one could carefully palpate the entire length of both uterine horns. At forty-five days of pregnancy, an amnion is easily palpated and is two fingers on its long axis. The fetal head can usually be palpated and sized at one finger width across the poll and a finger and half, poll to muzzle by ninety days.

Getting to that forty-two-day calving season usually took a few years. It required breeding heifers early so they would be the first to calve. That way, the rancher could provide his full attention to the heifer herd. It would also give those twenty percent of the heifers who had difficulty birthing a little more time to get their uterus in shape for breeding.

By paying attention to birthing problems and providing good nutrition following calving, most of the cows would be ready for the bulls. Turning the bulls in with the cows would see over seventy percent of the herd get pregnant in the first twenty-one days. Pulling the bulls out at day forty-two would cover over ninety percent of the cows. The others would be culled. Not that they had any problem, but if they were late in getting pregnant, one would never regain that time. Pretty soon, the ranch would be calving for half the year, and sooner or later, the cow would skip a year. 

The good thing about doing herd work at the Marble Ranch was lunch. Ag would always have a hearty homemade soup along with homemade bread. Served with ample casual conversation.

“It must be about time for you to shave your beard,” Ag said.

“Yes, it looks like spring is here, and summer will not be far behind,” I said. “Sandy doesn’t say much, but I think she likes it when I shave.”

“I think you should leave it,” Ag said. “When you shave, it makes you look too young.”

“Do you think so?” I asked.

“People like a certain level of maturity in their professionals,” Ag said. “I know you are in your mid-thirties, but you look too young when you shave and cut your hair like you are in the Army.”

“At the last State Veterinary Conference, a group of us young guys were talking,” I said. “It was pretty much the group’s consensus that anybody with a little grey hair would be believed over us, young guys. And it didn’t matter how outdated their opinion happened to be.”

“That’s exactly right,” Ag said. “You need to wear that beard to counteract that from happening.”

At dinner that night, I brought to subject up to Sandy.

“Ag thinks I shouldn’t shave,” I said. “She thinks I look too young when I shave. I sort of agree with her. Maybe I should wear this beard year-round.”

“Your mother will not be happy with that decision,” Sandy said.

“I’m not worried about my mother,” I said. “I was wondering what your thoughts were?”

“I am fine with it as long as you keep it trimmed,” Sandy said.

So, I didn’t shave that spring and haven’t shaved since.

Bill and Mary Jane, From the Archives

D. E. Larsen, DVM

I turned off of McDowell Creek road into the barnyard. I could see only a few cows in the holding pen and a couple of guys heading up the hill to the upper pasture. I looked at the clock to make sure I wasn’t early for the appointment to due the fall pregnancy exams on the herd.

Bill and Mary Jane comes out of the barn to greet me.

“I’m am sorry, Doc,” Bill says. “The boys are having a heck of a time getting the cows down. They smell a rat, I guess.”

“We could reschedule for another day,” I said. “I figured this will take the better part of the morning, and I have some afternoon work to do.”

“I think they will get the rest of them on this trip up the hill,” Bill said. “Maybe we could take you over to look through one of the chicken houses if that would interest you.”

“I have a lunch planned for everyone when the work is done,” Mary Jane said. “That should get you back to the office on schedule.”

“Okay, you twisted my arm just hard enough,” I said. “And yes, I would love to look through one of your chicken houses.”

“We don’t allow many people into these houses,” Bill explained. “It is upsetting to the birds when a stranger shows up. We try to have the same worker to handle each house. That way, there is no upheaval. We will be okay today if we just step through the door and stand and look.”

We step inside. This is a sizeable open chicken house, constructed of steel, it reminded me of the Quonset huts on the Army bases in Korea. These were about 30 feet wide and over 100 feet long. It was all open area on the inside except for a small room for feed and supply storage. The chickens ran free. And there must have been a thousand birds in this house.

“The company owns the birds,” Bill said. “They supply everything, the feed and the medical care. We just supply the house and labor. We get paid when they go to the market. It is to our benefit to have rapid growth and good survival. But if these birds grow to fast, they have heart problems, their hearts sort of explodes, sort of a heart attack, I guess.”

“Chicken medicine is a real specialty in veterinary medicine,” I said. “You just about have to go to vet school in Georgia to get any real education in chicken medicine. Just like swine medicine, you have to go to Missouri or Kansas to get much in the way of swine medicine.”

“If we have any losses, the veterinarian comes by and autopsies a few birds and gives us the answer and directions on what to do,” Bill says.

“Yes, chicken medicine is population medicine,” I said. “I had a virology professor who went to vet school in Georgia. He told a story of his diagnostic lab rotation during his senior year. A group of 4 students would spend a couple of weeks running the diagnostic lab. People would bring in several birds, they would have to fill out a questionnaire, then the students would euthanize the birds and do a necropsy, that way they could come up with a flock diagnosis. Necropsy is the veterinary term for autopsy. His group came up with a plan to finish the work faster so they could have time for a morning cup of coffee. One guy would check in the birds, pass them to the back, and then fill out the paperwork. So by the time the paperwork was done, the birds were euthanized, and the necropsies were complete. This one day a lady brings in a big rooster. The guy up front passes the rooster to the back and the group started the process back there. The guy up front starts going through the paperwork. “What signs of disease do you see in your birds?” he asks. “He has diarrhea,” the lady replies. Noticing this comment, he asks, “How many birds are in your flock?” “One,” replies the lady.” 

“Ops,” Bill said.

“Let’s go see if they are ready to get to work on the cows,” Mary Jane says.

With the cows lined up in the crowding ally and a crew of several young guys pushing the cows, the pregnancy exams go pretty fast. The pregnancies are sort of spread out more than I liked. They ran from 40 days to 5 or 6 months of pregnancy. 

The good thing was that almost all the cows were pregnant. They only had one open cow. The spread was something I would need to talk with Bill about. He was going to be delivering calves for over 4 months instead of the month and a half that I preferred. But getting there was a multi-year project that required increasing your replacement heifer numbers and doing some selective culling. That discussion would need a couple of set down sessions.

The best part of the day was lunch. When the herd was done, we all went to the house. I spent the most time at the sink and was able to get myself mostly clean. Only a small manure stain on my shirt at the left shoulder remained. Had I known lunch was on schedule, I would have brought a shirt to wear for lunch.

Mary Jane set a table that reminded me of the lunches during silo filling when I was young. They resembled Thanksgiving dinner more than lunch. We had roast beef, potatoes and gravy, veggies, and a salad. And then to top it off, apple pie with a scoop of ice cream.

We had plenty of time to talk following lunch. I told a bit about my early days of growing up in Coos County, and how many farms were located in the little valleys. 

“When I was a kid here, the school bus was always full,” Bill said. “There were family farms on the road all the way to town. Those are all gone today.”

“It is interesting, I have been transcribing the journals of my Great Grandfather and my Great Uncle,” I said. “My Great Grandfather talks about selling a bull for 11 cents a pound in 1890. And my Great Uncle sold a bunch of steers for 54 cents a pound in 1952. It just seems like those were pretty good prices for those days. Today, a young person cannot buy a ranch and make a go of it.”

“I think it is pretty sad,” Bill said. “The loss of the family farm has been a major change in society today.”

When the talk was over, I gathered my things, thanked Mary Jane for the super lunch, and headed back to the office to finish my day.

The next morning, I noticed Bill standing at the front counter. He looked a little agitated as he was waiting for his turn to talk with Sandy. I went out and shook his hand.

“Doc, I have got to show you this,” Bill said. “I have been up most of the night after we discussed your Great Uncle’s journals.”

We moved into an exam room, and Bill laid out a crumpled piece of paper that he had been using for a scratchpad.

“If your Great Grandfather sold a bull for 11 cents a pound in 1890,” Bill started, his hand shaking as he pointed to the paper. “The closest figure I could find was a Model T in 1908, it cost $850. Figuring 1100 pounds for a bull approaching 2 years of age, he would have needed 7 of those bulls to buy that car.”

“That’s interesting,” I said.

“Oh, there is more here,” Bill continued. “In 1952, my father went down here to Lebanon and bought the best, top of the line, Buick that they had on the lot. He paid $3200 for that car. If your Great Uncle was selling steers for 54 cents a pound in 1952, figuring those steers were 500 pounds, he would have had to have 12 of those steers to buy that car.”

“I am betting that you are trying to say things have changed a little,” I said.

“Changed a whole lot, I would say,” Bill said. “I could sell every darn animal I have out there, and I wouldn’t come close to being able to buy a decent car.”

“Those are interesting figures, they show the status of the farmer in the country today,” I said. “When I was in dairy practice in Enumclaw, I was told that the guy who delivered milk to the store, got more out of that gallon of milk than the dairy farmer.”

“It is no wonder that a guy goes broke ranching today,” Bill said.

Photo by William Moreland on Unsplash

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