Let’s start the New Year with cow magnets

Print More

It’s New Year’s, so let’s talk about cow magnets.

I’ll explain.

Recently, I was sorting through boxes of old papers and came across one filled with things I’d collected while writing a book, “Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf” (Harmony Books, 2002) about the life of a dairy cow. In the bottom of the box, under notebooks, photos, and farm hats, were two cow magnets.

Most people don’t know this—and I certainly didn’t know before I wrote the book—but dairy cows, soon after birth, are made to swallow powerful, cigar-shaped magnets.

As I wrote in the book: “Stray metal—nails, fence wire, gear shavings—is hazardous to dairy cows. Ingested with feed or licked up off the barn floor, it can seriously injure an animal’s internal organs. To prevent this, farmers give their cows magnets.”

At the farm where I observed, dairy calves were given magnets at about six months old. I watched as the farmers inserted the magnets down each cow’s throat with a metal plunger. The magnet would rest in the bottom of the reticulum—the first of a cow’s four stomachs—and grab any stray metal, thus preventing it from moving farther through the digestive tract.

The magnets stay in a cow’s stomach for life. At the slaughterhouse, by the time work on a cow is done, the only thing often left is the magnet.

Holding those magnets again, I’d forgotten how heavy and strong they are: If you put two together side to side, it takes real effort to pull them apart. I also thought of how clever farmers are to give the magnets to their calves to protect them from danger as they grow.

And that got me thinking: As parents, we sort of do the same thing with our own kids. We don’t give them magnets, of course, but we do give them words of wisdom. Call them precepts, maxims, or aphorisms—they’re rules to live by that we hope they will ingest when young and keep for their lives to help from being injured by the dangers and temptations they’re certain to encounter. These precepts are, to my mind, the human versions of cow magnets.

For many hundreds of years, children were taught penmanship by use of what were called copybooks. At the top of each page was printed a saying—maybe “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” or “All that glitters is not gold”—and the student would copy it out line by line down the entire page until the penmanship was correct. In the process, the idea was that the child would learn and internalize the saying itself.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” memorialized the lessons known at the time to millions of children.

“These copybook headings,” John Silber, former president of Boston University, has written, “were the efforts of an earlier generation to pass on their moral heritage to their children, to acquaint their children with nature, not merely physical, but moral and spiritual.”      

Copybooks went out of fashion long before I started school, but my parents—who themselves had been raised on such maxims—passed along some of their favorites to my siblings and me. A few I recall: one about choosing friends wisely, “Run with dogs and you’ll get fleas”; another about worrying too much about the future: “Today’s the tomorrow we worried about yesterday and all is well.” These and other maxims have been helpful over the years—even so, I’ve made my share of unforced errors.

When my kids were little, we shared other maxims, sometimes framing favorite ones for display in the kitchen or study. One about friendship was “To have a friend, you’ve got to be a friend.” Another was about persistence: “Character is what you do on the second, third, and fourth try.” Sometimes now when my adult children repeat back some of these sayings, I know they’ve stayed with them.

New Year’s is a time for stock-taking and resolutions. Perhaps we can resolve this year to give the children in our lives the benefit of some words of wisdom—some human “cow magnets” if you will.

Did your parents teach you some when you were young? Have they stayed with you and been of help through the years? Are there other favorites that you shared with your own children? 

If so, the Beacon would like to know. Write and leave a comment. Let us know about some of your favorite human “cow magnets.”

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].  

8 thoughts on “Let’s start the New Year with cow magnets

  1. Thanks, Peter, for triggering these memories. (Do you remember any from your eighth grade English teacher?)
    A couple from my father come to mind. As the cookie plate was being passed, he’d remind us that “One at a time’s good fishing.”
    And that day when my brother and I were trash talking, Dad’s version of “Think before you speak” was “Carve every word before you let it fall.”

    • Sue,

      I don’t remember any aphorisms from my eighth grade English teacher (that would be you!) but I do remember having to diagram sentences until we got them 100% correct–a valuable lesson in excellence and perseverance which was an aphorism in itself.

      Thanks for being such a wonderful teacher,


  2. When I was young, like many boys, I was a collector. I started with stamps and then moved on to coins. Having a hobby can be enriching and fun, but as my mother wisely told me, “don’t love anything that can’t love you back!” Truest words even spoken.

  3. One that comes to mind from my Father while growing up – “The Opera Isn’t Over til the Fat Lady Sings”. I’ve used that wise comment many times.

  4. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Polonius’ advice to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, good advice whether talking or writing.

  5. One of my father’s favorite expressions was, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” As a child, I didn’t think much of it. It was just one of his habits like drinking tea with milk or reading the newspaper after work. Years later, during a particularly busy time of my life, he asked me how I was able to juggle it all. I shrugged. He thought for a minute and said, “I think it’s sheer will.” I smiled in agreement. Even then, he didn’t realize the weight of his words.

  6. One of my favorites–not from my parents, but from the illustrious Mel Brooks is, “Hope for the best, expect the worst.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *