I always try to be flexible and take things in stride. That’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t upset to find four little cows in my basement. And, J was right: they were cold. We didn’t have any other way to keep them warm, so the makeshift bed next to the furnace was about the only option.
“They all came within an hour of this storm,” my husband explained. “I went over to feed and there they were. I never would have found this guy if the girls hadn’t been avoiding that edge of the barn…” He petted one of the sorry little bodies and continued to relate how the rain had come so fast, the ground basically liquified. Fearing for the new calves’ lives, he’d hitched the small trailer to the tractor and manned his own rescue mission, loading them in one by one to get them somewhere dry– and fast. He had been just about to head back when he noticed the cows walking around the edge of the concrete platform of the barn, an area they never bothered to avoid before. He hopped off the tractor to investigate.
“He was buried up to his eyeballs,” my husband said. The massive amount of water sheeting off the barn roof turned that platform edge into a pit of mud treacherous for an hour-old calf trying to follow his mom into the shelter of the barn. Like quicksand, it sucked at his still unsteady legs, and the more he struggled to free himself, the deeper he sank. Until he grew too exhausted to fight.
But the rest of the herd knew he was there and alive, and they refused to walk over him. Cows are polite like that.
“He’s really lucky you were there to save him,” I said.
“Yeah. But he isn’t out of the woods yet…”
Unfortunately, pretty much the only thing you can do in these situations is wait and see. Some calves will surprise you; you’ll be positive they are dead, and then they’ll rally if only for the reason that they know someone is rooting for them. And some get it in their head to give up after the least trauma and nothing you can do will change their mind. Those are the worst. Farmers, especially those who work with livestock, often have a gentle, caring heart housed under that gruff exterior. They love their animals, and understand on a deep, often instinctual level that the animals in their care must be happy and well to be profitable. Ranchers know the cold, hard facts of life and death, and yet they will still walk over fire and brimstone to save a fighting baby calf most veterinarians would write off as a lost cause. And that’s hard. It’s heartbreaking when you do everything in your power… and the animal gives up.
Once, we had a first-calf heifer who was having birthing issues. Poor girl was panicked, and though we tried to get her caught in a speedy manner, she ran us around for five precious minutes. At last we got her in the barn and secured in one of the stanchions — a simplified chute that catches their head so they can’t get away. She knew we were trying to help, and she stood so very still as my husband stripped to the waist and went to work. The calf had presented badly: they are supposed to arrive with both front feet first, and this guy had one foot back, lodging his shoulder behind the cows pelvis. I was helpless to do anything except comfort the cow, and I watched as J worked for forty long, tortuous minutes to get that calf free. I could see in his eyes that he knew it might be futile, but he kept working.
After what had been too long, the calf slipped out. My husband dropped to the ground and began performing bovine CPR. In vain he tried to recusitate the little body.
But the little one was already gone.
That was the first time I’d seen my husband cry. After taking care of the cow and closing up the barn, we went back to the house to clean up. We sat down on the edge of the tub and held each other. And what can you say? Sometimes life, despite your best efforts, has other plans.
But like I said above, sometimes animals will surprise you. Another time, we had a badly presented calf in a first-calf heifer, and all you could see was his swollen little nose. J was positive the calf was dead — if they present head first and their face swells, it means they’ve suffocated. So we caught the cow and he set to work pulling the calf.
It was a big calf, but he finally came free. When the baby slid out onto the ground, J knelt to check for vitals, not expecting anything.
And then the little guy let out a feeble moo!
My husband wasted no time helping the little guy expel the rest of the fluid from his lungs and getting him up so he could nurse. We kept them both in a separate pen for a while in case there were complications, but amazingly, there were none. The little guy grew up to be a healthy cow.
This is an installment from my serial, “A Baby in the Basement: My Life as a Cattleman’s Wife.” Catch up via the Serials page.