(This excerpt from William Gillespie’s book Cows I Have Known was adapted for publication in Illinois Country Living by William Gillespie and Patty Gillespie.)
Despite being only 7 years old in 1988, I can clearly remember that summer. Dry! Even under the shade trees surrounding our old farmhouse, deep cracks formed in the dry ground of the yard where I played.
By July, our cows had grazed their pasture to shorter than astroturf. Dad had to resort to using hay to keep the cows fed. Yet, the June-harvested hay was needed for winter. Luckily, some big round bales were left over from the previous year. However, to show their disdain for being fed year-old hay, the cows came up with the game of head-butting the bales.
They would stand there innocently chewing their cuds as Dad lowered the rear-mounted bale fork, eased forward, and allowed the hay bale to slide off. Then before he could hop off the tractor and manhandle the big metal bale ring into place, the cows would rush in and begin smashing and thrashing the bale. Dad yelling at them just made it more fun for the cows. Soon the bale would be reduced to a trampled mess of wasted hay. This was purely despicable cow behavior.
One day at lunchtime, Dad mentioned that he had noticed bumblebees nesting in one of the old bales. To my wonder, Dad’s excitement over finding the nest of bumblebees was equal to my apprehension about that nest.
Bumblebees have always been a nemesis of mine. I don’t really remember the exact details of my first encounter with them. I was just a toddler with a stick, poking at something, when I felt excruciating pain on my arm and then my leg. Mom, of course, came to my rescue but not before those bumblebees had stung me enough times to make me swell up, as my brother tells it, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
At the lunch table, Dad was telling his favorite bumblebee story. He says that as a young rascal he would go in search of bumblebee nests. He’d stir the nest with an old broken broom handle or a plaster lath. Then, whack! With quick swings he’d send those bumblebees, one after another, tumbling through the air. This was pure sport for him, and the threat of getting stung only added to the excitement.
As we finished lunch, Dad suggested we watch while he moved out hay; he had a plan.
Out in the pasture, instead of trying to quickly put the feeder ring on the bale as usual, Dad left the bale unguarded. We watched and sure enough, the game was on. The boss cow charged the bale. All of a sudden in mid-head butt, that big cow jerked back and let out a panic-stricken “BLAAHHH!” She turned around and ran with her tail flipped up over her back and her udder swaying back and forth. Then she stopped short and looked back at the bale, as if she were trying to figure out what had just happened, and was promptly stung again. She let out another “BLAAHHH,” or some such cow expletive, and rushed headlong into the pond.
Seemingly oblivious, the other cows dashed in. Here was their chance to best the boss cow and be the supreme head-butting machine! A cow would attack the bale, get stung, let out a “BLAAHHH,” and hightail it to the pond. Bumblebees were streaming out of that old bale, and the muddy pond was filling up with cows looking all pitiful with only their noses and ears above the water. It served those cows right for wasting so much hay in a dry year.
I looked over at my dad and he was laughing out loud. Mom got so tickled that she had to hold on to Dad to stay upright.
For a time, we all forgot about the dry weather.