The Duke of Devonshire

As I write I can hear cats in the upstairs guest bedroom; we have five living indoors. Mr. Darcy, Joanna’s Keeshond, has ensconced himself by the backdoor, keeping cold drafts from sneaking into the kitchen. If I tell you that these are Joanna’s animals, as are the ewes, layers, and geese, you may well ask if I have any animals. The answer is yes, I’ve currently got two, Woodruff and Siegfried, our rams. Males of the species have always been my responsibility and as such I’ve always been the one to look after the rams, bucks, boars, roosters, toms, ganders, and bulls. Joanna understands the necessity of having males of the species but has never liked them very much. [She does make exceptions for dogs and cats, however.] She says … they look at me funny. My favorite charge (no pun intended, read on) will always be Highland Hollow Duke of Devonshire, our American Milking Devon herd sire. He had just been weaned when I picked him up in New York and back then he fit, with room to spare, into one of the wooden crates we used to haul hogs in the back of the truck. Duke spent five years with us and he and I had come to an understanding very early on, he stayed put and I pastured the cows within sight; he never dropped his head (a sure sign that a bull is going to take a run at you) and I never turned mine when I was on pasture with him, he was massive by all accounts. We grained the cattle occasionally during winter, just before freshening, and sometimes as a reward when training to chain. We chained whenever we would have to get hold of one or another animal and this required that they all sported stout neck chains. We put a light lanyard around Duke’s neck when he was very young; he eventually graduated to a light chain, and then a heavy chain, and then a very heavy chain. I should have been entitled to hazard pay each time I had to switch out a chain, for when one got too small it would either have to be adjusted or exchanged for a larger one. To do this I would call Duke to the tie-down where I had put a bit of grain. He would amble over, eye me with just a bit of suspicion, and begin to eat. I had never measured the girth of his neck so simply purchased a length too long for the purpose which could be cut down to size. I began by feeding the chain over and around his neck. To dangle the chain down the far side of this neck and far flank I had to lean in close enough to his very large horns such that the near one would brush my cheek. Once the chain had cleared the far side and dangled to the ground I would crouch down, below his chin, to grab the chain and bring it on around. As I did so I would always have one of those out-of-body-experiences in which I watched myself, from a safe distance of about 20 or 30 feet, trying to adorn this massive and very powerful beast with a length of 3/8″ steel chain.  I would think … what an idiot you are … when Joanna finds out what you’ve done she’s gonna kill you if the bull doesn’t. Somehow I always managed. On more than one occasion I would back away and congratulate myself only to discover that I had forgotten to slip the two ID tags onto the chain before I clipped the thing closed. I do not protest, for Duke was a wonderful animal and as gentle as mature bulls may be expected to be. I enjoyed my twice-daily visits with him and still take great pride and warm pleasure in having had the opportunity to get to know and to care for such a wonderful creature. Like all breeding animals however Duke had, after a very few years, become a genetic liability. He was the father of more than half of our heifers so we purchased a young bull from Vermont as his replacement. We were lucky to find a place in New York that needed a fine Devon bull of its own. One day in the fall of 2011 Duke, like the gentleman he had always been, quietly and without fuss boarded a trailer which would take him north to his new home. Joanna has always said that everyone should have the opportunity to raise an animal and to get to know an animal well. She says that the experience has much to teach all of us about work, responsibility, compassion, and … yes, even love. She is right.

As an end to this post I’ve got to tell you my favorite bull story. Once, when teaching in the Hoosier state of Indiana, I was driving a group of students on a field trip to a nearby nature preserve. As we traveled the quiet country roads we passed by many farms. One, in particular, had a paddock right by the road and in that paddock was a single, mature, bull. Please don’t ask how I knew that this particular specimen was a bull, simply use your imagination and you will likely come up with one or two items which more than hinted at the gender of the animal. Everyone in the van was duly impressed, and for very good reason, this was a massive specimen and in very good condition. Although most of my charges had grown up on farms, some were from the nearby big cities of South Bend, Kokomo, and Fort Wayne. One young man from Indianapolis was particularly impressed and commented, Boy, I wouldn’t want to have to milk that cow.


Postscript: Imagine my surprise and delight when, one day while surfing around at YouTube, I found this video entitled Duke Visits Longacre. You could have pushed me over with a feather. There was Duke, Highland Hollow Duke of Devonshire, doing what he has always done best! Long live the Duke!

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