In Winter Storm, Saving The Calves Requires Tough (And Tender) People
OK, so you've got to shovel the car out and keep the water faucets dripping. You may need jumper cables to get the fool thing running. Not that you really need to go anywhere.
At least you're not a cattle rancher. Because your country cousins aren't getting much sleep this week. Stubborn beasts that they are, a million cows out in the boondocks are deciding that conditions are just right for giving birth. Ten below, thirty mph winds and driving snow? Perfect.
Of course, it's not really a decision. Back last spring when they were bred, winter seemed far away. Even so, there's nothing like a blizzard to send a cow into labor. Lovely Suzanne, the sweetheart of my small herd, chose just such a February night to deliver her first calf on windswept high ground near the hay ring. I feared that the little heifer, wet from afterbirth, would freeze to death before morning.
Fortunately, the pasture gate was close. So I picked her up, backed out the gate, and kicked it shut. Then I carried her to the barn about 50 yards away. Suzanne anticipated my intentions, ran clear around the barn and was waiting in a stall before we got there. I don't know which surprised me more: her intelligence or her trust. We named calf Violet, and she grew to be the image of her mother, sweet-natured and lovely.
Along with blizzard conditions and the coldest temperatures in 20 years, what got me thinking about Suzanne and Violet was a Facebook post a friend sent me depicting an old boy on the frozen steppes of Oklahoma, wallowing in a hot tub with an Angus calf he'd saved.
Posted by Lacie Lowry, an Oklahoma City TV journalist, at last reading it had drawn 1153 comments, mainly photos of rescued calves in unusual places: laundry rooms, kitchens, snuggling by fireplaces with children and dogs, even the occasional cat. Calves in pickup cabs, calves under hair-dryers, calves wrapped in comforters and blankets, even one calf wearing pajamas. Calves saved by farmers and ranchers all across the blizzard-battered Great Plains.
Trump voters most of them, it's worth remembering if you're an animal-loving Democrat prone to holding grudges. Decent folks, doing their best.
"The thing about cows," my Perry County neighbor Micky Hill once told me, "is they're always planning something." He'd been recounting the saga of the Milk Bandits, half-grown twin heifers who'd taken to stealing their younger siblings' milk.
"Daddy seen them calves was poorly," he said. "They just wasn't growing up right. Then one evening right around dusk, he seen them full-grown heifers sucking on mama cows. Not their own mamas. Other cows."
"So we took and put them in a borrowed pasture by themselves for a few weeks. Sure enough, the calves started thriving. Then come hay-feeding time, so we put them all back in together. Everything was fine for a little bit, but then the calves started looking sickly again."
"So one night Daddy slipped out to the barn after dark. Turned out them two heifers were chasing the Mama cows around until they'd get one cornered. Then they'd each take a side, grab an udder and lift the cow clean off the ground to where she couldn't kick or run away. They'd flat suck her dry in maybe half a minute, and then start in to chasing another one."
"And the thing is," he said "they knew to wait until dark."
The Milk Bandits had earned themselves a one-way trip to the sale barn. Likely somebody wanted them for breeding purposes, but there are no guarantees.
Like all mammals, cows definitely have minds of their own, and complex social lives. Researchers at Sydney University in Australia are just now discovering how complex. Doctoral candidate Alexandra Green has been recording and studying bovine vocalizations. She's catalogued some 333 separate sounds. She can identify individual voices without having to look.
"Ali's research is truly inspired," says her professor. "It is like she is building a Google translate for cows."
So what was I thinking when I sold Violet and her younger brother to a fellow from the next county? Well, that I couldn't let her breed with her father Bernie. She rode off down the road crying out, as they do.
However, by spring, Bernie had worn out his welcome. Trampling fences, fighting other bulls, breeding the neighbor's cows — the usual bull stuff.
Violet's new owner offered to return her as part of Bernie's sale price. Deal! If I live to be 100, I'll never forget Suzanne and Violet's reunion. Mother and daughter spotted each other from a distance as Violet stepped off the trailer. They galloped together, crying out with joy, and remained inseparable for days, nuzzling and licking each other.I like to cried, as country people say, clearly not tough enough to be a real rancher.