The Day the Cows Could Count

Not only was God looking out for me. God has a sense of humor!

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- Posted on Jul 2, 2013

dairy cows grazing on green field on a clear summer day

I grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Michigan. We had about fifty head of cattle at any given time, and it was my chore in the morning to help my father milk them before he left for his work as a high school teacher. My brothers and sisters joined in the milking again after we came home from school.

In my sixteenth year, something happened on the farm that not only convinced me that God was looking out for me but also that God has a sense of humor. I loved the farm, and I loved the ritual of milking. I was the oldest of five children,but this early morning chore was something I did alone with my father, whom I have always adored.

Each morning the cows would wait patiently outside the barn for the milking. Dad and I would usher them inside, six at a time, milk them and then usher them back out the other side of the barn through a different door. As we hooked them up to the milking equipment, I would think about my day and my life.

It was usually dark and often cold—sometimes extremely cold—but the cows’ steaming breath and their passive trust always warmed me up. It was a fine way to start a day. Cows must be milked twice a day, no matter what. If they aren’t milked, they can get mastitis, a not uncommon infection, for which they need antibiotics. This renders a cow’s milk unusable until she heals up.

Even when a cow is sick, however, she has to be milked, and that milk cannot be consumed or sold. It must be poured out. One time I had neglected to separate the mastitis milk from the rest of the herd’s daily take. That evening, my father made me pour the entire day’s milking down a drain in the barn floor by myself. None of that day’s milk from any of our cows could be sold. I cried the entire time I poured. Dad wasn’t unkind; he simply wanted me never again to forget this important and expensive detail. And I never did forget.

One Sunday when I was sixteen, my family was away for the day. I don’t remember why I was alone, but night milking needed to be done, and I’d have to do it by myself. Five cows had mastitis and were on antibiotics.

Each cow had a number attached to her ear, and Dad had given me a list of the five infected cows’ numbers. I would need to pour out the milk from those cows. The best way to do all this was to separate the infected cows from the rest of the herd and then milk everybody.

At low light, I headed for the barn. There in a small corral were the fifty cows, all crowded together,all waiting for me to milk them. Now cows aren’t like horses. They’re big and passive and not exactly high-energy, so they aren’t the easiest creatures to lead. Getting five specific cows out of this herd was going to be difficult.

First I’d have to weave in between them and read their numbers to find the right five cows. Then I’d need to throw on a lead rope or prod them somehow to get each one of them out of there and herded into another pen without the other cows getting out too. And, as I say, cows aren’t horses—they don’t automatically move aside.

They’re very curious and, consequently, they may actually get in the way and become obstacles. Or they may just decide to follow an infected cow out of the corral. Then I’d have to get the infected cow into the other pen and the healthy cow back into the corral, keeping the rest of the herd from spilling out—by myself! So although separating the five ailing cows from the rest wouldn’t be an impossible task, it wasn’t going to be an easy one.

Memories of pouring milk down the drain still smarted. I didn’t want to mess this up. I opened the gate and entered the corral. The cows—as cows are wont to do—turned as a group and stared at me. I suddenly wished my siblings were there to help. It occurred to me that God cares about all the details of our lives—of my life.  Perhaps this was a time to enlist the Lord’s help.

So while I held the list of numbers in one hand, I raised my other hand in the air—it seemed appropriate to do that. Then, with all the faith of a child, I spoke in a loud voice toward the heavens: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, would the following cows please step forward? Numbers two, eleven, seventeen, thirty-two and forty-nine.” I don’t know why I said that or even why I said it that way. I felt pretty silly and was glad no one else was around. But as soon as I finished speaking, I heard a rustling noise from the back of the corral.

You know what happened, of course. Cows numbered two, eleven, seventeen, thirty-two and forty-nine wriggled their way through the herd and came forward. And other cows actually stepped aside for them. I was reminded of the parting of the Red Sea.

I picked up my jaw from the ground, opened the gate, herded each of the five into the other pen and then locked the rest of the amazingly cooperative herd back up to prepare to milk. Separating the sick cows probably took me all of two minutes, and milking that early evening took no more time than usual. I didn’t tell my folks about it that night. In fact, I usually never tell this story. Who would believe it?

It’s the only time something like that has ever happened in my life. But I never forgot it, and I’ve always appreciated it.

As I said, I like to think God has a sense of humor we’re made in his image, after all. It’s true that on that day God smiled on me and made the work of this young laborer a little easier. But when he used a herd of dairy cows as his agents, I like to imagine that he winked too.

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This article is excerpted from Angels in Disguise.

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