August 2015
Farm & Field

A Dedicated Life

  Mahlon Richburg makes his evening rounds to feed his cattle; some prefer to eat straight from the bucket in his hands.

A Day in the Life ...Mahlon Richburg

The red barn in the background is weathered, but picturesque. Its tin roof is discolored, but still hanging on. A late summer sun is shining, outlining the barn and its surrounding trees as the breeze ruffles through the branches.

His jeans are worn, but his light blue and green striped shirt is pressed to perfection. He pulls his sunglasses off to talk and places them on his head to reveal bright eyes, set in tan skin, slightly crinkled from sunny days and countless smiles.

Hearing his voice, the cows shift towards the fence waiting on dinner. Every morning and every afternoon, Mahlon Richburg makes the rounds to feed his cattle.

The 63-year-old leaps up onto a nearby trailer to fill a few 5-gallon buckets with feed. Cottonseeds are piled as high as Richburg is tall, but with one effortless swoop he fills each bucket. He walks through the gate to feed the cows, leaving it open behind him.

As the seed echoes in the metal trough, the cows eagerly push their way up to it. Standing comfortably in the midst of them, he casually reaches over to pat the bald spot on a heifer’s back. She has a soft, shiny, black coat like the rest of them except for one pink spot about the size of the hand petting it.

When she was a calf, Richburg explained, she was caught in a green briar bush. Not knowing what to do, the scared newborn got intertwined in the briars, scraping and scarring her back.

Richburg’s herd consists of Angus and SimAngus with a few crossbred show calves. As soon as his truck stops in the pasture, they all approach eagerly.  

He rescued the calf when he found her the next morning and had to nurse her back to health. For weeks he would pick her up in the pasture, carry her to her mother and help her nurse. Although he claims no partiality toward any one of his cattle, this yearling is alive only because of Richburg’s care and dedication.

Not only is he dedicated to his cattle, but, for decades, he was dedicated to his students. Richburg, or "Burg" as they called him, taught agriscience education at Auburn High School before retiring in 2013.

He talks about his former students like most people talk about their grandchildren, with detailed descriptions and an air of pride.

Ethan Stanley, a former student, said that Richburg was the most memorable teacher he ever had. He was a stern instructor, but he was dedicated and caring.

"Burg had a way of making his students want to work hard at what they do," Stanley said. "[Hard work] is, I believe, a virtue that is very prevalent in agriculture and definitely was so in his classroom. He made you want to figure out how to do things right."

Another former student, Tiffany Godfrey stated that all of her fondest memories from high school involved Richburg and FFA.

"Burg is still to this day my biggest inspiration," Godfrey said. "He encouraged me to be the best I could be."

One of the things she remembers is how every morning, without fail, he went to Hardee’s for a cinnamon raisin biscuit and coffee. With $1.72, he still gets breakfast there every morning. Occasionally, he sees former students and, of course, remembers each one.

Driving through another pasture, he points out different cows and has a story or interesting fact about each one. They do not have names, only numbers. Nevertheless, Richburg can spot one from 100 yards away and immediately recognize its number, as well as know its mother’s number and calf’s number.

Richburg’s voice is gentle. His words, dripping in wisdom, come straight from years of experience. Although retired, he is still teaching.

Before starting his career as a teacher, he earned his degree in agricultural education at Auburn University. Richburg moved to Auburn in 1969 to attend the university after graduating from Luverne High School and never left the area.

While sitting in a freshman English class one day, he met his wife Mary. According to Richburg, he was trying to watch them fill in the horseshoe in the stadium through the window, but there was a girl in the way.

They were married in 1972. Today, with a girlish grin, Mary talks about her husband.

"He is very caring," Mary says. "He can find something to laugh about or something fun in everyday life."

Mary earned her undergraduate degree in elementary education and then earned her master’s in counseling. She was an elementary teacher for 17 years before becoming a counselor in Auburn public schools for 23 years. She retired in 2013 as well.

"I said, ‘Well, you know I’ll do this 4 or 5 years then do something else,’" Richburg says about his teaching career. "And as Paul Harvey said, ‘You know the rest of the story’; 40 years later we retired from education."

Passion for the children they taught for so many years is one of the many things the couple have in common. Both grew up on family farms in Alabama. The Richburgs raised cattle and grew crops in Crenshaw County and Mary’s family had cattle in Florence. She occasionally accompanies Richburg on his daily routines and takes care of the cattle when he is out of town.

Through an open patch in the trees, the sunlight shines through his truck windows as he entered the third pasture. Work gloves, tags and anything else he might need during his rounds lay on the floorboard along with stray pieces of hay. He approaches the treeline while talking about the two award-winning show heifers following his truck. He stops speaking, and squints his eyes toward a cow in the distance.

"Bingo," Richburg says as he drives up to her.

There is a newborn standing under its mother, only a few hours old. Of course, he knows the mother’s number before he walks up to her and prepares a tag with the calf’s new number. Holding the fuzzy, black calf between his legs, he quickly tags its left ear.

Surprised by the piercing, it bucks and bellows. Richburg holds on and talks to the calf until he calms down, then lets him go back to his mother’s side.

Exiting the fields, he locks the metal gate behind him. He drives back to the barn, a darker red now that the sun is setting. Tomorrow morning after breakfast at Hardee’s, Richburg will start his routine again.

As Paul Harvey said, "You know the rest of the story."

Lacey Rae Sport is a senior at Auburn University.