Growing up with Bulls
By Dave Waldo
Author of the Book: Sharing Personal Stories;
Creating, Writing, & Telling Stories People Love to Hear
The Bull Farm in Skagit County
Have you ever wondered where calves come from, especially when all the farmer has in his field are cows? There’s got to be a bull somewhere. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, we had the bulls. My Dad was the manager of an organization called the Northwest Co-op Breeders Association.
I was 4 years old when my Dad took that job. It was a small farmers’ cooperative located outside of the town of Mount Vernon in the Skagit Valley of Washington State. When we arrived the co-op had only 6 bulls. The house we moved into was old and not in very good repair, and the barn was small and inadequate.
Each bull had his own pen. But the problem was that the pens were wooden board fences. That wouldn’t be a problem except for the bulls’ tongues. I’m sure most of you haven’t felt a bulls tongue. I have, and I can attest to the fact that they have very rough tongues, and one of the things they really enjoy doing is licking wood boards. In fact, they licked them so much that the boards would get very thin in places. Then after a while a couple of bulls would get themselves loose. I remember a few nights when my Dad had to go out and capture bulls that had leaned against fences with thin boards. My mother remembered one particular foggy night with horror when my Dad and one of his employees spent hours breaking up a bull fight between two of the meanest bulls. They were fighting out in the field. Somehow they managed to capture the bulls and tie them up until the fences could be repaired. I think it bothered my Mother more than my Dad. She used to wake up with nightmares about such experiences for years after.
When I was 6 years old the bull farm was moved to another place just west of Burlington. The house was bigger and nicer, the barn was larger and in good repair, and the property was on 20 acres. From then until we left, 8 years later, the co-op went through many changes. One barn expanded into 5 barns, a lab, an office building, and 50 of the finest pure bred bulls in the country. They included Holstein, Guernsey, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Herford and Aberdeen Angus bulls.
One of the greatest improvements, as I saw it, was when we went from board fences to iron pipe fences anchored in concrete. One of my first jobs, where I actually earned money, was painting all those pipes and steel posts. That was a big job for an 11 year old kid. No bull ever escaped after that.
I loved those bulls. I used to spend hours out in the barns petting them. I would rub their foreheads and feed them a little extra grain sometimes. They were wonderfully powerful creatures, each having their own personality. Crewman and Leader were huge black and white Holstein bulls. Leader weighed probably close to 2 tons, he was enormous, and Crewman wasn’t much smaller. They had pens next to each other, and they talked back and forth, in bull talk of course. I remember Ferdinand, a big red Guernsey who was the friendliest bull, and then there was Fox, a tough cunning brown Jersey bull. His full name was Romulus Remus Baby Boy Fox. He wasn’t as large as some of the others, but he had horns and he was treacherous. I would always be extra careful when I petted him. Later, I remembered watching the vet saw Fox’s horns off. I think Fox lost something special that day, maybe his tough boy reputation.
Each bull had a large ring in his nose. I used to watch Dad and one of the other guys as they led the bulls. They would snap a chain to the ring and lead the bull by the ring, nose up in the air. For the tougher bulls one of the men would snap a chain to the ring and the other guy would attach a stiff iron rod also to the bull’s nose ring. Then one man would pull with the chain and the other would exert controlling pressure with the rod. It was dangerous work, but no one ever got hurt.
Now that I have told you about the bulls, I must tell you how the artificial breeding process worked. That was actually the term used, artificial breeding or artificial insemination.
One of the barns had 2 dummies, which were securely bolted to the floor. A dummy was an iron frame in the shape of a cow with cowhide stretched over it. A bull was led out to one of the dummies, and he would mount it. We used to call it jumping the dummy. A rubber lined tube was placed inside the dummy to collect the bull’s semen.
Occasionally the dummy just did not have enough appeal for a bull that day. The bull might be led back to his pen to think about it for a day, or at other times, our only cow would be paraded in front of the bull to help him get the idea.
As I saw it, the dummies had a dual role. When they weren’t otherwise occupied, my bother Bob and I spent many happy hours riding those dummies. We played cowboys and Indians and bucking bronco, and had wonderful times on those dummies.
After the semen was collected, it was taken in the tubes to the lab. There, the semen was mixed with egg yokes and put into little bottles that were labeled with the bulls name. The bottles were kept in refrigeration. Some of the bottles were packed with ice in boxes, wrapped, and sent via bus to the field inseminators. I remember going with my Dad many times to the Mount Vernon bus station to take packages for shipment to such exotic places as Ferndale in Whatcom County and Arlington in Snohomish County.
When a farmer noticed that one of his cows was in heat, he would call his local inseminator. The farmer might ask for a specific bull or just specify the breed. The inseminator would drive out to the farm with a bottle of the bull’s semen. He would then reach his hand way down into the cow and deposit the semen. The cow might not realize it, but she had just been bred. As a kid, I tagged along and watched all that stuff. It was all very fascinating.
I learned a lot growing up on the bull farm. There is a power and majesty about bulls that I have always admired. I learned that bulls can be very gentle, they like lots of attention and love to be petted. But, I also learned a healthy respect for them. They can be extremely dangerous at times.
I hope now when you drive by a field of cows and notice some young calves, you’ll remember my story, and know that there has to be a bull somewhere jumping a dummy.
The following is an update to my story. In early 1994, my wife Hazel and I went with our friends, Bill & Joan Green, to a performance of Crimson & Company, a Washington State University (WSU) student singing & dance group. It was held at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. The group was very entertaining, and we thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
At the intermission I had a conversation with a gentleman sitting next to me. He asked me if I had graduated from WSU, and I said “no, but my parents, my sister, and my son all had gone there.” He told me that he and his wife had gone to WSU in the early 1940s. I mentioned that my Dad graduated in Dairy Science and worked for WSU in the early 1940s. I told him that my Dad’s name was Don Waldo. He said, “Don Waldo! He was the Herdsman at WSU when I was there.” He went on to tell me that he had worked for my Dad while he was in school studying dairy science. He also knew Dad later, because he was on the Board of Directors for the Northwest Co-op Breeders Association. His name was Don Steffens, and he owned a farm near Monroe. Don said he remembered me as a little kid playing around the barn sometimes. Don also told me that he admired my Dad, and said Dad was a leader in the field of artificial insemination. I remembered from my childhood that Dad had a close working relationship with some WSU professors.
Don and I had a wonderful conversation about the bull farm and what happened to the co-op after we left. He also told me that he would send a 50 year historical booklet of the All West Select Sires organization as it had developed from its beginnings as the Northwest Co-op Breeders Association. The booklet was very interesting. I especially enjoyed seeing old pictures of my Dad, the manager, and my Mother, who became the office manager back then. There were pictures of the farm, some of the people who worked there, and some of the bulls.
As we talked, Don told me some other information that was quite interesting. I learned that the operation became centralized through a number of mergers over the years. The Northwest Co-op Breeders Association became All West Select Sires which is now a member of the parent organization, Select Sires, Inc. Select Sires Inc. is a federation of nine farmer-owned and controlled cooperatives. Select Sires owns a huge bull farm located near Columbus Ohio. The bull semen now gets sent out from that facility in metal tubes immersed in liquid nitrogen. The farmer may keep a supply of the semen in a liquid nitrogen container to be used when his cows go into heat. Or, he can call his local inseminator to come out to his farm and fertilize his cow.
I had always wondered about the old co-op, what happened after we left back in 1953. When we left I had just finished the 8th grade in Burlington. We moved on to Eastern Washington where I attended three high schools; Deer Park, Wilbur, and North Central in Spokane. Then I went on to college graduating in 1962 from the University of Washington in Seattle. Following graduation and a year of work in Seattle, I moved to Los Angeles for five years. After I moved back to the Northwest, I would occasionally drive my family up to Skagit County to enjoy the beaches around Anacortes. Naturally, since the old bull farm was just off highway 20 west of Burlington, we would have to swing by and have a look. I enjoyed showing my family the old place and telling them about the bulls. However, I was sad to see that it was becoming progressively more dilapidated each year. The beautiful barns that I remembered now looked uncared for. Paint was peeling.
The place continues on its downward path, more run down as the years pass. But now since 1994, I know the rest of the story. The bulls are all in Ohio. What an eye opening coincidence to be sitting next to a farmer from Monroe named Don Steffens at a concert that evening in 1994.
DAVE WALDO, AUTHOR
SHARING PERSONAL STORIES