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Dairy farmer always looked at the big picture

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:16 AM

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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — David Lill, the Elizabeth dairy farmer known for his unique cow photos, suffered a fatal heart attack Jan. 24.

He was a quiet, unassuming man with a caring heart. He was a good friend.

We first met about 20 years ago when I interviewed him about his cow photography.

It was summer, and David took me to meet the Brown Swiss herd he affectionately called "the girls." His favorite, Tasha, greeted us at the barn's door.

"C'mon Tasha," he said touching her back. "Get a move on."

She turned around and plodded down the alley. The rest of the herd reacted like Tasha. Each one looked in my direction then turned to continue chewing their cud.

I'd shown dairy cattle in 4-H and FFA, but these were the tamest cows I'd ever seen. The connection he made with them allowed David to capture some memorable, fun photos.

In his milkroom, David's camera, one of the latest models, was within easy reach near a pile of old hats. He used the hats — a mixture of fedoras, straw hats and 1950s-era ladies dress hats — in many of the photos. The majority were purchased at farm auctions. But he got the strangest reaction when he asked around for a wedding veil. Once he got it, the veil looked perfect in his bride cow photo.

The photos were sometimes planned and sometimes off-the-cuff. He'd see a cow lay a certain way, and he'd picture the final photo. The tame cows often kept their composure as he put the hats on.

He didn't always get his ideas at the best of times. Once he called me on a cold winter's day to take part in his Christmas picture shoot. His friend would be wearing a Santa's outfit, and his cows would don Santa hats.

I grabbed my camera after putting on several layers of warm clothes and drove to his farm. David was putting the finishing touches on the cow's hats as his friend prepared to move in quickly for the picture. With a frigid breeze blowing, we took photos as fast as possible before the cows could move.

It wasn't long before we faced a bovine mutiny. One threw her head back to dislodge the hat. Their patience, which had been testy at best, was now depleted. As they walked away, it seemed the cows had a "so there" swagger to their gait.

The shot became a popular Christmas card in his collection.

I'm sure he could have looked at the card and named each cow. Each had a name, and he could also detail each one's disposition.

Take, for example, Precious. She had a short attention span, but she was among his most photogenic bovines. In his blog, David talked about her arrival.

"I came down to the barn that morning for milking, and her mother, Pooh Pooh, had given birth," he wrote. "Precious was so little when she was born that I thought that Pooh Pooh was going to have twins. Because twins are usually born smaller than a single birth calf. I took one look at the little baby calf. She was so cute and tiny and adorable that the first words that came out of my mouth were, 'Oh, for precious.' Needless to say, that little calf kept that name and grew like no other calf I had seen grow before."

When David showed Precious at the Minnesota State Fair one year, he took her on a walk.

"She just had to inspect everything in sight," he said. "Garbage cans, bricks on the buildings, the people —anything in sight."

Then she walked up to a Sheriff's Posse member and his horse. She was infatuated with the horse, David said. She rubbed noses with it and even shook her head like the horse did.

David was an accomplished photographer who also took shots of landscapes and area landmarks. He received honors for his work and judged art shows. He had published his photos in a calendar, magnets, a coffee table book and postcards. The items were sold at a local book store and at booths at the West Otter Tail County Fair and the Phelps Mill Festival.

He mentioned two women who'd stopped at his Phelps Mill booth one year. They laughed and chuckled over his cow postcards for 20 to 30 minutes.

"They said, 'We're sure glad you are here because we had a bad start to our day. You've made our day brighter,'" he said. "Even though they didn't buy anything, I knew that I had made a difference with my artwork."

When he talked about his legacy, David's thoughts turned to the farm.

"At one time in our lives, we all knew of a family member or someone close to us who was connected in one way or another to a dairy farm," he wrote in his blog. "That older farmer often told us little stories about his cows. Our landscape was one dotted with these farms and stories. To these people, it was a simpler way of life. Sure, hard work was involved, but the rewards were there, too.

"These delightful cows gave so much of themselves and never asked for anything in return. A lot of the time, these creatures became a part of the family; that is pretty much gone now. Most of today's generation will never see or know of farm life. Each animal was as individual as you or I. Now, that's gone. It's commercialized, and it's numbers. Betsy is now No. 101."

When he talked about his art, David said his unique photographic twist of his dairy cows, the cows he called his "extended four-legged family, gave people a character they don't' see or take time to notice.

"In today's fast-paced society, nobody takes time to notice," he said. "This unique photographic twist and words of humor makes readers take a moment to pause, laugh and just sit back and think of what's around them. It's what I want people to see and think. For all we know, a little bit of laughter goes a long way and helps brighten a day. That is what I want my legacy with dairy cows to be, if only for the moment, to reflect back to a simpler time in our life."

Well said, David. Well said.