REALITY RANCHING JANUARY 2017
The fall calving season on the ranch came to an end in mid-December when the last holdout, cow 901, delivered a large bull calf. The calf was so large in fact that I’m pretty sure the little guy went past his due date by several days! We were delighted that the twenty-nine heifers delivered all their calves with no assistance from we humans. We did lose two calves on the mature cows but when you calve out one hundred eighty cows the odds are you won’t save every calf.
I wish I could report that after the baby calves were born all was fine with them, but we have been fighting a lot of health problems in the calves this fall beyond what is normal. A new strain of pink eye has made an appearance in this part of Kansas affecting all ages of cattle. Many people fought the virus in their herds this summer but the nasty new eye infection didn’t show up in our herd until this fall. We have had ear infections, particularly in the first calf heifer calves, which is something that has been a problem for us in past years too. We also had four calves develop severe scours(diarrhea) in late November. Three of the calves survived but despite Randall’s best efforts in administering electrolytes and milk replacer via a tube, the fourth calf succumbed to the fast-acting disease after a couple of days.
Just when we thought we were “over the hump” with the calves, the babies on the first calf heifers went into a funk. The calves had no energy and stood around with their heads drooping, but they didn’t show any usual signs of illness like coughing and snotty noses. We threw up our hands and called our veterinarian who came out to see if she could figure out what was going on. On our vet’s advice, we revaccinated the calves plus she administered a different antibiotic to the calves then what we had been using. Dr. Amy checked the temperatures on the sick calves and found a third of them were running temperatures of 103 to 105 degrees! Even though the normal temperature for cattle is 101.5 that is still a high fever. Our vet also took some swabs and KSU is running a culture on the samples in hopes that we can figure out what virus we are dealing with. The calves’ look much better now and were bucking and playing a few days after our vets visit. In addition to the problems with the fall calves we have had illness in our weaned spring calves to deal with too. This certainly adds a lot of stress to us three humans that are caring for the cattle plus it entails extra work in treating the ailing calves.
As with all calving seasons there are events that happen out of the norm and are worthy of committing to the computer. As usual, the first calf heifers were kept at our house and I am normally the one that keeps a close eye on them. Often the young cows were calving without the giving the telltale signs that they were thinking about having a calf, so often when I went out to check on them I would find a soppy calf struggling to get to its feet or already on its feet nursing the new mom. These girls weren’t messing around, they just laid down and got to work delivering their calves.
One afternoon I was standing in the yard waiting for Paul to return as he needed me to go help him do something (I can’t remember what). Even though I had checked the heifers around an hour before something prompted me to take another look at them. Perhaps the reason was because Dalton’s heifer Petal was obviously going to calve “any minute” that I decided to take a quick look before I left. As I walked into the small brome field I saw Petal standing alone near the rock wall, her head pointed at the ground. Was she grazing or had she calved? As I got closer to the brockle-face cow I heard the gasping rasp of a calf struggling to breath. Oh no! I break into a run and see the calf lying in front of Flower. Flower is busy licking the baby but she is licking the rear end of the calf, not the head! The poor calf’s head and front legs are encased in the birth sac and the sac is wrapped so tightly over its head that the calf is about to suffocate from the lack of oxygen.
I approach the suffocating calf but Flower decides to be super mom and lets me know by shaking her head and bellowing at me that I am not welcome. I retreat to the wall and literally stumble over a long branch on the ground. I grab it and rush at Flower, smacking the branch on the ground in front of her, which causes the new mom to turn tail and run a short distance away. I then grab the thick membrane and rip it off the baby calf’s nose before beating a hasty retreat because Flower is on her way back determined to defend her new baby. I stand and watch the calf from the safety of a tree, probably the one that provided me that handy branch, and give a sigh of relief when the calf’s breathing becomes normal. It seems like forever, but it probably was only a couple of minutes, before the little brockle-face calf lifts its head off the ground. Whew, the calf is going to be all right.
Later when I talk to Dalton to inform him that Flower has delivered a heifer calf his first response is a dejected “It’s a heifer!”. I relate the story to Randall and Erin’s oldest son about how I saved the little calf’s life. I then lobby Dalton to name this newest addition to his growing herd, Nancy, thinking my heroic efforts are surely worth the calf being my namesake. The young man doesn’t seem impressed with this idea and later after the family has come to examine the newest member of the DD herd he happily informs me that he has named the calf Sweetheart. O.k. the heifer calf does have a small white mark on her poll that resembles a heart but I still think Nancy would have been a great name.
A couple of weeks later, Paul and I are checking the cows in the brome field below our house with the Ranger. We buzz by Dalton’s second calf heifer, Sunflower, who is munching on the green brome grass. We give her a cursory look as we drive by and after Paul has driven a hundred feet or so we look at each other with the realization that Sunflower didn’t have her swollen calf belly anymore. Paul wheels the Ranger around and we drive back to the young cow. Yep, she has calved and she has been nursed but the question is where has Sunflower hidden her baby. We slowly drive around the area and as we approach the creek bank Sunflower comes on a run. Oh boy, the bank is steep here and the two of us get out of the Ranger to peer over the edge. The bad news is that indeed the calf has gone over the edge of the bank. The good news is that the little bugger is laying on a grassy ledge well above the deep pool of water below it. Paul and I come up with a strategy to get the baby back up the bank to its mama. I quietly make my way down the bank staying off to one side and come up behind the calf. This is to make sure the calf doesn’t spook and take a dive into the water below (yes it occurs to me that the calf could still spook and take me with it into the creek). Once I am in position, Paul comes down, grabs the calf and pushes the wide-eyed baby back to safety as Sunflower peers down at us. I chastise the young cow for placing the calf near the steep creek bank but she completely ignores me, (Dalton told me one day when I was earnestly talking to some cows that “I don’t think they speak English” :). Sunflower sniffs her calf and then leads her baby towards the herd.
I call Dalton to inform him that Sunflower has calved and tell him how we rescued this heifer calf from her precarious perch. I suggest that since Paul and I were involved in this rescue that perhaps a good name for the calf would be Millie, short for Miller! Dalton’s reaction is an exasperated “It’s another heifer!” and I can hear mom laughing in the background. Poor Dalton, the youngster is facing a cash flow problem since he has passed the two cows for free mark so he really needs a bull calf that he can sell this fall. Dalton now must pay pasture and winter care on his extra cows and although heifer calves can be sold it is a tough decision to let go of one. Later, Dalton tells us that he has named Sunflowers’ calf, Dandelion. I look at Dalton and ask him what in the world we must to do to get him to name a calf after us to which he just shrugs nonchalantly! Man, impressing this boy is tough.
Dalton has one more cow to calve and of course Flower has a heifer 🙂. I see Dalton in person and break the news to him. His shoulders literally sag when he hears the word heifer. This calf he names Daisy, so still no namesake for Paul or me! His cash flow problem is solved when Dalton decides to sell, Mickey, one of his heifer calves that was born last fall, to the ranch for a fair price. Dalton mentions the fact that he has had seven heifer calves in a row which would entail calves born in the last three years. As you can see, Dalton mostly has a flower theme for naming his cattle. His brother Jacob on the other hand names his cattle after western movie characters. Katie Elder his only mature cow had a bull calf this year which he named Davy Crockett. Jake also has a yearling heifer that he named Crazy Alice, fortunately she hasn’t lived up to her name! Little sister Anna’s cow, Tulip, had a heifer calf which she named Barbie. I’m pretty sure that Anna was disappointed that the calf wasn’t pink.
Early in the calving season, Paul and I came upon two cows at Milton’s’ chasing after the same calf. Since the calf was tagged we knew the rightful mother was 324 but 298 was determined that the calf was hers. We couldn’t decide if 298 had calved yet (sometimes cows will try to claim a calf right before they calve) so we decided to return to check on this matter after we had finished looking at a couple more groups of cows. Upon our return, we found the two cows lying down in some tall dead grass. The rightful mother was lying several yards away from 298 and the contested calf. Obviously 298 had fought off the real mother of the calf and successfully stolen her baby. We also discover that 298 has calved as she has expelled her afterbirth while lying next to the calf she absconded. Great, we have a calfnapping and we have no idea where 298’s real calf is or if it is even alive! It is very unusual for mature cows to get confused and claim another cow’s calf, particularly when they are running on large acreage.
There is a catch pen a quarter of a mile away so Paul and I grab the calf, much to the disapproval of the calfnapper, and load him in the back of the Ranger. We make sure both cows know where the calf is, then with Paul holding onto the calf and me driving the side-by-side we make our way towards the pen. 324 follows dutifully behind the Ranger but 298 has other ideas. The calf stealing cow runs in front of the Ranger which causes me to come to a stop so I don’t run into her. The old rip does this time and again, occasionally lowering her head as if she is trying to pick a fight with the Ranger, which causes me to hurl some unkind words at the thieving cow. We finally arrive at the corral and entice the two cows into the small loading pen by placing the calf in that pen. Cutting 298 into a side pen is no easy task because she is determined to stay with “her” calf.
Randall is on the scene by now and 324 and her calf are hauled via trailer to the brome below our house. 298 is taken to the pens at our house so if we get lucky and find her calf we can work at getting 298 to claim her biological calf. Finding that baby will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. The guys must leave to put water gaps in at one of our rented pastures so that leaves me to look for the baby calf.
I take the Ranger and head back to Milton’s place where I search the area where we first found the two cows chasing after the bewildered calf. I slowly and carefully drive the Ranger back and forth peering into the rank foxtail that has grown up in the brome field. I don’t find the calf so where do I look now I remember what when I checked this bunch of cows yesterday I was short several cows. I finally found them on top of the small wooded hill where the cows were munching on acorns. This year the acorns were thick and our cows were crazy for the nuts feasting on them as if they were candy. If we were short on our count in any of the herds, we would immediately head for the timber and look for oak trees where more often than not we would find the missing bovines crunching on acorns! Anyway, I distinctly remembered that 324 and her calf were with several other cows on this hilltop snuffling around the base of oak trees for acorns. I remembered 324 and her calf because we only had a couple of calves in this group so far. Hmm perhaps this is where 298 got confused and laid claim to 324’s calf.
I park the Ranger at the bottom of the hill and as I walk up the tree covered hill I cast my eyes from side to side looking for a small black calf. When I reach the hilltop, I walk along the fence that separates this acreage from the meadow to the south. A baby calf can get pushed under a fence so I also peer out over the meadow as I traipse along. When I reach the west side of the hill I move over several feet and walk back to the east, trying to look in every grassy clump or bush on both sides of me. Five times I walk from one end of the small hill to the other with no sign of a calf. As I turn to walk back for the sixth time I have resigned myself that the unwanted baby isn’t here since I am on the crest of the hill and no cow would have had her calf on the rocky steep side of this hill. I have walked about halfway on this trek when several feet away, I spot the baby calf lying next to an old log. I’ll be darned, now the question is how do I grab the calf without spooking it and get it back down to the Ranger?
I have no lasso or halter with me or in the Ranger but there is some twine in the bed of the side-by-side. The calf seems to have not noticed me so I decide to trek back to the Ranger for the twine. I make a careful note of the area where the abandoned calf is hiding before I leave. Once I get back with the twine I sneak up behind the calf and grab its back leg, fastening one piece of twine around its ankle. Wrapping the end of the twine around my gloved hand, I then kneel on the baby calf and tie the other piece of twine around the black calf’s neck. Surprisingly, the calf doesn’t struggle or even try to stand up while I am ensnaring him with the orange plastic twine.
Once I am satisfied that I can stop the calf from running off with my flimsy twine rope, I try to get the calf on its feet. The little heifer either can’t stand or refuses to stand so that means I am going to have to carry her. Putting one arm around her neck and the other around her butt I heft the baby calf up. Thank goodness she isn’t a large calf, probably sixty or sixty-five pounds. That being said I’m not a youngster anymore and I find that I can only walk so far with a limp calf in my arms. When I start to huff and puff and my arms begin to protest the calf’s weight, I lay the calf down on the ground to take a rest. I haven’t gotten very far and at this rate my journey to the Ranger is going to be time-consuming! After a couple of minutes I reach down and hoist the baby calf up again and plod off but after a few steps the little calf decides enough is enough and begins to thrash her legs and head against me in earnest. I can’t control the calf and still walk so I set her down again making sure I have a firm grasp on the twine constraints.
Well shoot, maybe I can force her to walk down the hill to our waiting ride. Nope, the obstinate calf not only won’t walk but she lays back down and refuses to stand up again, just going limp when I try to make her stand. You little rascal, there is only one other way to get her off this hilltop and that is to drag her. I know, it sounds awful but luckily there is thick grass which will cushion her. I grab a hind leg and begin to pull the prone calf. She slides along surprisingly easy and after we have gone several yards I give the calf another chance at standing and walking. The little girl again refuses to stand and goes as limp as a rag doll at my attempts. I continue to pull the calf, often having to dodge around old logs, trees and bushes. When we finally reach the Ranger, I am exhausted despite stopping several times to rest and stretch out my back.
Another problem arises as I need to transport the calf home to where her mother is. I have no way of restraining the calf as there is no place or way to tie her in the bed of the Ranger. If the calf will continue to play possum (lay still) it will be fine but if she decides to make a break for it what then? After mulling it over, I decide to lay her on the floor of the Ranger on the passenger side where she will be within my reach if the calf decides to make a get away. The next decision is how to get home, do I go through the fields where I must get out to open and shut three gates or go via the highway where I only have one gate to pass through? I opt for the route that takes me through one gate.
The scared calf lays quietly on the floor on our ride to the gate and while I get out to open the gate. However, when I jump out and run back to close the gate, I hear the baby calf scrambling to get to its feet. I’m sure the petrified calf has decided to make a break for it since that scary two-legged creature is out of sight. I jump into the Ranger just as the calf is trying to crawl up onto the seat and grab the would-be escapee. I force the calf back on the floor and get her to lay down again by flipping the baby on her side then holding onto a front leg so she can’t stand back up. Once the calf accepts that she is my prisoner again she ceases to struggle and I drive on.
Things are going well as I turn out of Milton’s drive and onto the highway. The calf seems to have accepted her dilemma and is laying quietly on the floor. It is about a half of a mile from Milton’s drive to our driveway so I am hoping the calf continues to cooperate. Well that hope vanishes when the rascal decides that she has had enough of this adventure and starts to get to her feet just as I am coming into the sweeping curve not far from our driveway. Trying to keep an eye on the road and one hand on the wheel, I desperately grab for the calf’s leg as she climbs halfway up onto the seat. I silently admonish myself for making the decision to drive down the highway but it is too late now. I slow down but I don’t dare take the ditch as it is too steep, so I just grapple with the calf and continue towards our driveway. Once I turn into the drive I force the calf down on the floor again, waiting for him to calm down before driving the last leg of this journey. Good grief, I will never do that again!
I breathe a sigh of relief when I motor up to the pen where we placed the unwanted calf’s mother. I pull the calf out of the Ranger and this time the calf is willing to walk to the narrow, wooden gate and I push her through it into the pen with her mother. I watch as the cow walks up to the tired calf, sniffs it and unfortunately turns around and walks away. Well, the good news is that she didn’t try to butt or kick at the baby calf. The bad news is that the guys haven’t returned yet so I am going to have to put the cow in the alley, catch her head in the head gate and get some mothers milk into this very hungry calf on my own.
I walk the cow into the working pen and to my surprise and delight when I herd 298 towards the alley she amicably walks right into and down the narrow passage way, puts her head into the self-catch head gate and stands quietly while I remove the boards that will allow the calf to reach her udder. I gather up the calf and hold my breath as I help guide her to one of her mother’s teats and squirt some milk into the calf’s’ mouth. This part is tricky because range cows don’t particularly like to be milked and often will kick at you or at the very least jump around in response to your touch. Again, I am pleasantly surprised that 298 stands as placidly as an old milk cow and continues to do so until her calf has filled its empty belly with milk. When the calf is finished nursing, I push her in front of his mom where 298 again sniffs at her but gives no sign of recognition that this calf is hers. Well phooey, I walk the baby calf into the big pen and then release 298 into the pen and shut the gate. I stand and watch the duo for a while, noting that the cow looks over at the calf which is now lying down on occasion but isn’t curious enough to walk over and check him out. When I get back to the house I call Randall and Paul on the two-way radio and they are delighted to hear the news that I have found 298’s calf.
There is a happy ending to this story as sometime in the night 298 has decided that this is her calf after all. When Paul and I check them in the morning the calf has nursed and 298 is uttering some motherly sounds towards her. In another day 298 has turned into a protective, loving mother, and on the third day we turn the happy pair with the herd that is on the Rock place.
As unusual as this calfnapping is among mature cows, Randall had the same thing happen again in the same herd at Milton’s. He had tagged two new baby calves one morning whose mothers were standing nest to each other. Randall told us that something about that scenario was bugging him all day and so he went back that evening to check on them again. Randall found one of the cows with the calf he had tagged in the morning but she also had an untagged calf with her. The problem was that this was a big burley calf while the tagged calf was fairly small so it seemed unlikely that they were twins. Since it was getting dark and the cow seemed to be taking care of both calves he decided to sort things out in the morning.
Well, we did sort the mystery out in the morning as it seems the cow Randall had seen with two calves last night had claimed the twin of the other cow and then later gave birth to her “real” calf. This calfnapper left her real calf behind during the night but luckily the abandoned calf was still lying where Randall had seen it last night. This morning the calf’s’ mother showed no interest in him so we took the calf home and put him on a bottle. A couple of weeks later the rejected calf was adopted by a cow who lost her calf at birth so things turned out alright for both of them! Nancy