We finished calving out the Rock Hill heifers on October 15th. All but 3 heifers had calved by September 27, just nine days after the actual due date for this group of heifers. Those of you who run a breeding herd know this is pretty phenomenal! Of course the last heifer to calve always seems to drag her delivery date out as long as possible.
1178 was the number of the heifer who was the hold out in the herd. I dutifully checked on her 5 times a day and often I would politely ask her to get on with the show. Yes, I do talk to our cattle. 1178 would never respond to me thank goodness, but occasionally she would at least raise her head and look at me with mild surprise. O.k. this heifer always has a look on her face of mild surprise so this meant nothing.
When I say 1178 would raise her head at my spoken word it is because she was always eating when I was checking on her welfare. 1178 was either grazing on the brome or filling her mouth with hay from a big round bale that was always available for the heifers. The reason I mention this is that often 1178 was eating when the other cattle were lying down or just chewing their cud. I don’t think I ever saw her on my heifer checks when she wasn’t eating! To put it bluntly the heifer is a glutton.
As the days pass and the heifer continues to gorge herself she grows more rotund. When I feed this small group of heifers their alfalfa in the morning, (all the rest are pairs by now), 1178 waddles up and inserts herself into the feed line where ever she wants, pushing the other heifers aside easily with her bulk. Well, this heifer can’t wait much longer or she is going to burst.
There is a cold front bringing rain tomorrow and I tell Paul surely this will make the heifer deliver her calf. Often weather fronts cause cows to calve the day before or the day of the front. No calf makes an appearance today and when I check 1178 early the next morning she is still a bred heifer. However, I raise my eyebrows to see that she with the seemingly endless appetite is not eating and standing slightly apart from the rest of the group who are still bedded down. When I return to feed alfalfa after eating breakfast 1178 isn’t with the other impatient heifers waiting by the gate. As I scatter hay I watch the pregnant heifer walking slowly through the gate from the lower field. AHA! I shut the gate behind the heifer in order to keep her in tighter quarters.
By mid-morning our last heifer to calve is working on becoming a first time mother. The cold front has arrived and this calf will be born in a light rain. Paul and I keep an eye on 1178’s progress from the machine shed. We want the calving heifer to concentrate on the task at hand and not on us. 1178 has to work hard but when the calf’s head finally appears the rest of the birthing process goes quickly. Paul steps over the fence and examines the calf to make sure the placenta isn’t covering the calf’s nose. We walk back to the house listening to the new mother as she fusses over her baby.
My job is over after 45 days of heifer checks. Paul and Randall are just getting a good start on the 200 plus cows that are calving. The cow calving season is spread over 60 days requiring a once a day check. If the guys find a cow preparing to or in the process of calving they return later to look at the cow and make sure all is well.
Paul and I have been calving out heifers for 37 years and yet after all these years we always seem to encounter new problems. This year my wards seldom gave me the normal clues that they were preparing to calve. I would walk through the friendly creatures to find all of the girls munching brome or contentedly chewing their cud. Returning 3 or 4 hours later often there would be a new baby calf being vigorously licked by mom, or already on its feet greedily sucking down its first meal.If I saw any heifer switching her tail faster than her herd mates or maybe standing in a slightly stretched position I took it as a sign that she might be contemplating on becoming a mother. I would always walk and look at these heifers an hour or two later to find that my “observations” were usually wrong.
On an evening trek, I notice 1185 standing a few yards away from her herd mates in a stretched position. I study her closely and see no other signs that she is preparing to give birth. I ask Paul to check her just before dark in case she really was showing a subtle sign of the onset of contractions. Paul reports back that 1185 is with the rest of the heifers and seems perfectly happy.
The next morning I put alfalfa on the 4 wheeler and pull into the brome field at first light to feed and check heifers. I take a head count before I spread out the hay and find I am one animal short. It doesn’t take long to find the missing heifer, 1185, standing humpbacked and straining hard with nothing to show for her effort. Dang it, I should have gone out at bedtime for a night check but we have been getting along so well I have become complacent. Paul is filling feed buckets from the grain bin and I buzz up on the wheeler to inform him of the problem.
As Paul opens up gates, I lead the herd near the brome field gate and scatter out the hay. Paul and I go after the troubled heifer and shoo her in the direction of the group. Once she joins the hay munching heifers we usher 1185 out the gate and walk her up the lane to the working pens. After catching the heifer in the head gate, Paul does a pelvic exam to discover the calf is coming butt first its legs folded underneath its body. This is probably the worst way a calf can present itself for birth. We halter the heifer and let her out of the steel alley way and tie the halter to the fence. Paul only tries a short while to see if he can straighten the calf’s legs but the heifer is pushing against him so strongly he simply can’t do a thing. We need a veterinarian.
I go to call Dr. B while Paul unties 1185 and leaves to chore because he needs to be somewhere (darned if I can remember where) at a set time. I call Randall to come as soon as he can as I am sure Doc will need help and I doubt I have the strength to assist her. Dr. B arrives before Randall so after the heifer and I circle the small pen several times, I manage to grab the lead rope and between we two women, 1185 is snubbed up to the fence. No she doesn’t like it and pulls back on the halter with all her might. Randall has joined us and I step away handing over the vet assistant role to him. Dr. B delivers the spinal block just in front of 1185’s tail head. This seems to immediately numb the heifers muscles allowing Doc to begin the tedious and laborious effort to pull the calf’s hind legs straight. Dr. B is literally reaching into the heifer up to her shoulder as she tries to grip and realign the calf’s leg! Finally Dr. B gets one leg straightened and places a small chain around the ankle. Randall grabs the chain and pulls up to keep a steady pressure on the leg. This allows Doc to find and straighten the remaining leg somewhat quicker and easier. This leg is fitted with a pulling chain, Randall hooks the chains to the calf puller and with the heifer straining to help the calf is finally delivered.
Because of the difficult birth and the fact that the heifer had been in labor too long the calf is dead. As Doc is administering uterine boluses and antibiotic to the heifer I am studying the calf. There is something weird about him. The calf’s front legs are curved into a backward c and the legs look too short. I mention this to Randall and Doc and once Dr. B finishes attending to 1185 she walks over to examine the deceased calf. Reaching down she grabs a front leg and tries to straighten it out. It takes her no time to diagnose why the calf looks strange and she rattles off some long medical name to us. I ask in some alarm if this is a genetic problem and am relieved to hear the answer “no”. Dr. B explains that in extreme drought there are certain plants ,when ingested at just the right time in the development of the fetus, will inhibit the normal development of the leg buds. Dr. B informs us that this is one of several calves she has seen in the past 3 years with this affliction. Only one of these abnormal calves was alive but naturally she had to euthanize the poor thing anyway. The fact that the calf was doomed regardless helps alleviate my guilt a little for not checking on his mother last night.
It would be nice if this was the end of the story. Although 1185 was worn out and stressed our vet was confident that she would be alright. That evening she was lying down but was alert and got to her feet when I approached her. The next morning when I was looking through the group of heifers I couldn’t find her. I enlist Paul’s help in the search and he finds 1185 lying in a brushy corner obviously dying. The young heifer must have ruptured a vessel our vet couldn’t detect or perhaps it happened later when she expelled her afterbirth. Needless to say we all feel terrible about losing the heifer.
We will leave this sad story behind and move on to a more humorous one. The term first calf heifer is an obvious one; it describes a heifer who delivers her first calf. First calf heifers can be frustrating, ignorant, clueless, and exasperating and any number of descriptive labels you care to come up with. When you consider these new mothers are basically winging it with only instinct to guide them you must add words like amazing, protective and natural mothers. Some heifers are better than other in making the leap from calf to mom hood but all of them muddle through in the end.
When heifers have a brand new baby the majority of them stay by their calf the first day even as they watch me scatter scrumptious alfalfa out for their herd mates. Don’t worry, I always save a few flakes and deliver it to the new mother. There are times when the young cow can’t fight the temptation of that leafy green hay and will leave her calf to eat, what in human terms, would be a rich dessert. 1177 is one of those weak-willed heifers and though her wobbly legged calf tries to follow his mom, he can’t navigate the small gully that has to be crossed to join the herd. I make note of the calf as he wanders a few steps down the ditch and beds down in a patch of grass.
As I step out the back door for my mid-morning walk through the herd, I hear plaintive mooing coming from the brome field where the heifers reside. I have listened to cow talk all my life and I am betting that a calf has been misplaced by one of the novice mothers. Adding a sigh of my own to the forlorn notes of the unknown mooee, off I go to participate in an unplanned scavenger hunt.
It doesn’t take long to spot the cow that is making all the fuss as she is walking aimlessly, occasionally sniffing the ground and calling with her fog horn voice for the misplaced baby. When I catch up with her I see that it is no other than the “greed over calf” heifer 1177. Well unless this calf has moved since I saw him 3 hours ago I know exactly where the baby is hiding. I imitate pathetic baby calf moos to get 1177 to follow me across the field to the ditch. Here I magically produce her calf out of the brown grass and watch the mother fuss and snuffle over her baby who doesn’t seem to understand what the big deal is.
That evening as I step out the back door I hear a familiar sound ringing across the brome field. Are you kidding me? Sure enough when I stride through the field towards the complaining cow it turns out to be 1177. I don’t even have to cry like a baby calf as my success this morning seems to have given 1177 assurance that I will take her right to her calf. As the silly heifer follows me, I scold her for her inattentiveness and tell her that this time I don’t have any idea where her baby is. This doesn’t seem to faze her at all as she plods along behind me like a dog on a leash. I go to where I left the pair this morning in hopes the calf didn’t stray far. I walk the small gully until I come to the water gap and there is the awol calf. He has crawled through the loose wire and bedded down in a small depression. I push the calf back through the fence to his appreciative mother who again fusses and talks to her wandering progeny.
This is ridiculous; I’m beginning to think this heifer suffers from short-term memory loss. The next day we go through this ritual again with 1177 broadcasting loudly for her missing calf, me wandering around with the heifer right on my heels. I discover the wayward calf on the wrong side of the fence lying in tall grass. What is it with these two critters, the calf seems to prefer adjoining fields and mom obviously isn’t keeping tabs on him.
The next day I barely step into the field when 1177 falls in behind me vigorously encouraging me to find her calf. We search together with no luck so I begin to check through the baby calves that are lying around in a loose circle. There is the “missing” calf hanging out with his buddies and he is not near as enthusiastic as his mother is at being “found”. I am beginning to feel like I’m being played here. When a couple of days pass with no cries of alarm from 1177, I assume our search and rescue sessions are over.
Oh no, there is 1177 pacing next to the fence I always crawl through to enter the brome field when I go to check for calves. The agitated cow is walking back and forth, bawling loudly and looking over the fence. I assume the calf has weaseled through the wires again so I begin searching the thick tall grass for the trouble maker. I come up empty and tell 1177 that if he is out here I can’t find him. I duck under the fence expecting the usual fall in behind me position of my bovine companion. Instead the upset cow trots ahead of me unleashing her loud unmelodious calls as she goes. I follow her as she runs to the edge of the field and stops by a calf standing near a large oak tree. As I draw near I can see the calf is partly through the fence and has a front leg lifted off the ground. When I reach the little bugger I see that he is pulling back against a strand of barbed wire that is wedged behind his knee. If the bull calf would have walked forward instead of pulling back he could have remedied the problem of his entanglement on his own. With mom watching me expectantly, I get behind the calf and push him forward and voila, he is free as a bird and with nary a scratch to show from his predicament.
I know what you’re thinking or at least I would if I was reading this. This is a surely a fanciful tale but I assure you it is not. There is no doubt 1177 lead me to her calf that was stuck in the fence. My question is was she pacing that particular fence waiting for me to make my appearance??
We moved these heifers and their calves shortly after this episode to a larger brome field. Paul, riding the 4 wheeler, would look at this group every day after he had finished his rounds through the calving cows. One day after helping Paul build an electric fence I decided to walk home. To get home I walk over a meadow, through some woods, across the gamma grass field into the large brome field where the group of first calf heifers is.
The satisfied cows are grazing on the brome and pay little attention to me as I walk through the lush grass. When I reach the lot where the cattle must come for water I hear the distinct crunch of hooves behind me. I stop and turn to find 1177 gazing placidly at me. We look at each other than I take my camera and snap a photo of this rather unusual cow. I crawl through the fence and see some alfalfa along the edge of the bunks where the cattle were fed this morning. I pick up the hay and call to 1177 who walks through the gate and I reward her with the hay. Maybe that is what she was after all along or perhaps old habits die hard.
Coming soon in a reality ranching, “Paul, Randall and Nancy’s, more adventure than we ever want all in one day”. Later, Nancy