Picture this: You’re a senior in high school, and it’s 5:30 a.m. on a bleak, snowy March morning. Your alarm isn’t a blaring clock like so many of your friends, no, it’s your father opening your bedroom door, half-awake; it’s chore time. You throw the covers off of yourself, shivering at the chill of the morning. You call out, “Hey, I have to be at school early, can I get the day off?” but you already know the answer. Your sister groans from her bedroom, and says, “If you get the day off, I get the day off too.” That does nothing but anger your father, because he doesn’t want to do chores by himself. “When’s my day off?” he asks as you hear the sink rush with water and the sound of a bucket being filled with scalding water. You pull on a pair of old sweatpants and a gross sweatshirt. You trudge out to the garage to put on the rest of your uniform: a pair of muck boots, mismatched gloves, a random LSU stocking cap, and a heavy Carhartt jacket. There are twenty-five small baby calves waiting for their breakfast, and the sun hasn’t risen yet. You grab a spotlight, heading outside into the darkness. The barn is down the hill; it’s not even a barn, more of a converted open machine shed where your family stores an assortment of ‘treasures’ and a few tractors that haven’t ran in decades. You’re the first one there, and the barn is dark, but with your flashlight, you can make out the sight of calves, seven or eight of them, waiting at the three-foot high panels that keep them from escaping. They’re bawling, wanting to be fed right that moment. You get in the pen, and maneuver around the calves. You pull the string, illuminating the shed with the dying light bulb. You walk around, counting to ensure all are accounted for and alive, before you start putting the big calves in ‘jail’, the small pens that keep the calves from getting on the cows early and sucking the cow dry. Your dad brings the bucket, now with the frothy milk made with milk replacer, and says something along the lines like, “are they all ok?” to which you nod and curse at one of the calves that was stubborn. You grumble about your sister, who is probably in bed or taking her time, but you lock the pens, three or four calves in each. You fill the pans with the corn and alfalfa mixture as your dad fills up the bottles to start for the ones that won’t get on the cows. You pull open the door in the back, where the three dairy cows are waiting to come in. The seven calves that are out rush around to get on the closest cow. You adjust the calves, and then you start feeding the ones in the jails with the bottles. You take two, and your dad takes the other two, feeding the bigger first. You didn’t lock the jail when you put the calves in, and there has been a ‘jailbreak’. You hurry and wrangle the calves back into the pens, but some stay out and get on the cows. Your sister arrives and she goes straight to one of the cows. The calves all have ear tags, and on them are the names of the calves. Names are easier to remember than numbers, especially when you have so many. Your sister starts quizzing your dad on which calf is which, and you have to answer her. The three cows are restless, so you and your family realize it’s time to let them out. You volunteer, “I’ll pull calves, Danie you chase.” Chasing is the harder job because the cows never move. She brings them and the calves that follow, and you stop the calves from exiting the shed. Since it’s starting to get light outside, you finish by letting the ones in jail out for good and making sure there is fresh grain and water before trudging back up to the house to get ready for school. You skip breakfast because the animals got fed before you do—that’s just the rule of this house. As soon as you get home from whatever after school activity, you’ll repeat this whole entire process, and then the next day, and the next. Although you are exhausted, your heart is happy. You have nursed sick calves back from the brink of death and you have seen these calves grow up and sell better than some that were raised conventionally on a stock cow.
Bucket calves have taught me more about myself than any other agricultural project could have. I’ve been totally invested in a calf, and had it die on me, while a $75 shrimp of a calf has survived. I’ve spent countless hours caring for the animals and have cultivated my passion for agriculture because of these calves. When I tell people I raised bucket calves in middle and high school, they always look at me funny. People associate bucket calves with young kids, and they’re not wrong. I got started when I was 10 years old, and I still have one of my first bucket calves on the farm as a breeding cow. I’ve learned to count years by associating what calf we kept back with what year it was. Other farm kids may make their money by detasseling, working for another farmer, or raising show animals. For my sister and I, it has always been bucket calves. Although it called for early mornings, late nights, heartbreaking scenarios, and hard work, I wouldn’t trade all the time I spent with these baby animals for anything.