In memory of my childhood best friend and the most loved dairy cow I’ve ever known, Ethel:
At eight years old, I didn’t understand much about the world. All I knew was that I loved the farm that we lived on and I wanted to learn all about it one day just like my dad, uncle, and grandfather had done.
At this young age, the best way for me to learn about farming was through the 4-H program, in which I could learn about agriculture and everything that fascinated me. I started with a market hog project, then the next year, I began my dairy journey with a calf my dad picked out specially for me – Ethel.
I remember the first time I saw Ethel in her calf hutch next to her twin sister in December of 2003. My dad explained that I would show one calf (later to be named Ethel), and Karen, my cousin, would show the other (later to be named Emma). He picked these two out because they came from a great family of cows and he expected them to do well for us as 4-H projects.
I named my calf Ethel because I had high hopes for what our friendship was going to be. I wanted to have a mischievous, genuine relationship like that of Ethel and Lucy from I Love Lucy. I also named her “Ethel Elizabeth” because I thought it would be cool to have an animal named after me. Sometimes I wonder about my eight-year-old self…
It turned out that the whole “friendship with a large animal” thing was more challenging than I expected, especially in moments when Ethel was learning how to walk on a halter, she saw food she wanted instead of listening to my father and me, and she got stung by bees and ran away. However, this bond turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
In the beginning, I was in awe of Ethel. She was unlike anything I had ever interacted with. We were forming a relationship – girl to girl, human to animal, large four-legged friend to small two-legged friend – and that was special. That awe never went away as she aged from a tiny calf into a sassy 14-year-old troublemaker.
You see, Ethel wasn’t just a cow to me; she really was my best friend. It seems absurd to think about an animal making such a tremendous impact on a someone’s life, but she taught me about what’s important in life and she came at the most essential time when a girl needs a good friend. She taught me that there was more to life than school, sibling rivalry with my brothers, food, and my dogs as a small child. But even more critically, Ethel grew up with me as I struggled with all the things youth face – bullying in school, learning about what’s important in life, superficial friendships in the heat of middle school drama, and becoming somewhat of a grown-up. She was the rock I could always come back to for a hug when everything else seemed too hard. In addition to that, she taught me about agriculture, passion, responsibility, hard work, friendship, resilience, perseverance, and humility.
My love for agriculture came naturally to me at a young age because of my family, but I think it ran deeper in my heart because of my connection with Ethel. I wanted to understand her, what she needed in cow care and comfort, what made her happy, and anything I could about her needs…even if they mostly revolved around food. Because she fascinated me, I pursued learning about agriculture more and more, and I credit my passion for this industry and community to Ethel.
Ethel taught me about responsibility and hard work in more ways than one. Throughout her 14 years, my dad and those who helped us on the farm took care of her every day. However, it was up to me to get her ready for shows, feed her at fairs, and prepare everything in between. It took about 3 or 4 times of forgetting her veterinarian-signed health papers for the fair at home before I finally got the hint that I needed to be more responsible. It all paid off one year when I took full ownership of everything and worked diligently to prepare her for the show, and we, as a team, ended up winning our large showmanship class. It was the small wins like those that made me appreciative of how she taught me about myself, but how we worked so well as a duo.
The beauty of my friendship with Ethel is that it was unique. It’s not every day when a little girl would rather play with a cow out back than be with her human friends. The true beauty shined through when I would sit and talk to her for an hour, and she would just sit there looking at me, letting me pet her like this is what we were made for.
When I left for college and only came home about every 3 months or so, Ethel got upset with me. Because cows can sense how you’re feeling, Ethel would always know when I was about to leave to go back to school because I was sad when I came to say goodbye to her. In these cases, she would walk away from me because she was mad, and would hardly let me say goodbye. When I came back from being away, she would look at me, then choose to ignore me like she was mad that I decided to come back and act like everything was normal. As days went by of me being home and seeing her every day, she warmed up to me more and more, until I said goodbye again. In the in between, she would rest her head on me for five or more minutes sometimes, seemingly just like she was saying, “I’m glad you’re here,” without moving an inch.
It was a cycle that both warmed and broke my heart. She taught me that friendship can be hard, but it’s the showing up when you can that makes it count.
In my family’s eyes, Ethel Galbreath was the definition of resilience. There were at least three times in her life when we thought she wasn’t going to make it, and every single time, her sassy attitude and strong will helped her power through. After a C-section (thanks for saving her, Jen Trout!), cancer scares and cancer spreading, many infections, and her old age catching up to her, she still fought every single day. I’ve never seen anything like it. My mom jokingly said one day before Ethel went down that Ethel was “the cow with nine lives,” and I think that summed it up perfectly.
To put this in some context, Ethel was in rough shape leading up to her death. Ethel went “down,” meaning she couldn’t get up, more than two weeks before she died. Most dairy cows we’ve had don’t make it past three or four days of being down, but Ethel fought for as long as she could, surpassing any expectations we could’ve had for her. Most American dairy cows live for about eight years, but Ethel (and her twin sister, who’s still going) lived for 14. Her extraordinary perseverance was a blessing to see.
My favorite thing about Ethel, I think, wasn’t the fact she was sassy or that she loved meeting new friends who came to our farm for field trips and tours, but rather that she was the rock in my life for 14 years. Ethel was the most important thing in the world to me, but she was a cow. What I mean by that is that Ethel wasn’t anything huge (okay, maybe literally she was) or regal. She was a farm animal that was as real as it gets. There’s no sugar-coating anything on a dairy farm, and I learned that quickly. It hits you hard when the circle of life is part of your day frequently and there are lots of flies, smells, and weather-related events involved. Ethel was a humble reminder for me that the most important things in life aren’t elegant, ravish, full of money, or extravagant. The most beautiful things in life are in God’s individual creations, if we’re lucky enough to be able to truly see and appreciate them, and that’s exactly what Ethel was to me. She was a gift from God to my dad and I who gave us little sprinkles of His love every single day.
One reason I tell you the story of Ethel is to remind you that dairy farmers love their animals, and this industry pours their hearts and souls into what they do. I’ve heard what animal rights groups have to say about dairy farming being inhumane, but here’s a real glimpse at the love farmers have for their animals: I have never seen any person love an animal like my dad loved Ethel. He took better care of her than anything I’ve seen or could’ve imagined. Every single time Ethel was a little “off” or hurt, my dad did what he could to keep her healthy, happy, and safe. Until she died, he was giving her individual care like she was in hospice for cows, picking her buckets of clover by hand because he knew how much she loved it. Although I wasn’t there to see her at the very end, I know he gave her everything he could, and he kept her around for years longer than she would’ve been without his unconditional love. Those two were real pals, and it was the coolest friend trio to be a part of. And no matter what Ethel and I went through, my dad was always there to help us along. My friendship with Ethel wouldn’t have been anything without my dad’s love, diligence, and support.
The other reason I tell you about Ethel is because she was important to me (if you couldn’t tell). Something I learned from you all – family, friends, agriculture community, and even strangers – was that you are the best version of yourself when you live pursuing your passions. When I would light up and talk about Ethel for the past 14 years, everyone welcomed it. People were excited to hear about something that I cared so deeply for – and what a beautiful life lesson that is. Others craved to hear about Ethel, asking about how she was doing sometimes before asking me about how I was. I am so thankful for people welcoming me for loving Ethel, but going even further to care for Ethel themselves. It means the world to know that people love me for who I am, but my closest friendships have been even more special because my friends chose to make Ethel a part of our bonds, too. Thank you all for that love and for letting me be who I am (even if I’m seemingly a crazy cow lady).
I could write a novel about Ethel (and maybe I will, but that might take a while) and what she meant to my family and I, but this was just a small part of our long story. I hope that you know that this world is full of struggles and hardships, but what matters most is who you go through those with. For some at this point in life, that’s a spouse or significant other, and for others, that might be a dog or a cat. For me, that was Ethel, and I’m forever grateful that she was my partner-in-crime growing up.
I hope you’re encouraged that you will be loved for who you are and what matters to you, no matter what that is. If I can create community with others who know and love me while being best friends with a 1,900 lb dairy cow, I think anything is possible.
Thank you for all your love and for sharing in this journey with me for the past 14 years. Ethel loved you a whole lot, too.