I’m going to tell you it should never have happened, but it did. Like a government shutdown. This is how it happened.
It started out a pleasant, warm fall morning last week. Walking out to the cow pasture we were optimistic sorting would go easy. Joked to the spouse that it was a fine day for a fight. Working cattle together for some reason tests the fabric of the best marriages. We’ve been testing ours for so long, we didn’t think it would rip today. Not many cows to preg check. Only vaccinating two steers for our own consumption and a heifer or two for replacement.
Gathering the herd we spotted a cow we had watched over summer walking stiffly. An easy decision to cull. If she was stiff after easy summer living, winter would be hard on her. Best she went to market now, sleek and fat.
Any other cow not pregnant would go. But if all were pregnant, like they have been for the last few years, we would select ones who made puny calves. But looking the calves over in the corral they all looked good and fat. If all the cows were pregnant, it would come down to who still had all their teeth.
She came down the alley kinda snorty, No. 63. One of our middle-aged black cows. Bigger than most and looking very pregnant as well as shiny fat. She had a fine narrow head and a strong neck. Her head was so sleek and her neck so fat that when I closed the catch bars on her neck she pulled her head out of the braces. She reared up and slid down the side of the squeeze, ending up on her side. She started throwing her head, kicking, making a terrible situation worse.
The bottom panel of the squeeze had popped open earlier while working on another cow. Now this cow’s hip slipped under the metal pipe that re-enforced the squeeze. This pipe is strong enough to hold the strongest bulls, and was pinning her hip down. We stood back a minute, and saw no way for her to stand caught like that. If we used a torch to cut the pipe it would burn her. The pipe would not bend. Breaking the steel bolts holding the squeeze together was our best bet to free her.
I ran to get more sledge hammers from the shop after the first one broke pounding a chisel against bolts. Hard pounding, the spouse tired, but did not stop. After a time the first bolt snapped. Then many minutes later a second. The cow, on her side a while now, still throwing her head and straining. We watched her belly roll. Whatever was inside her did not like the situation any more than we did.
When the side finally came loose the cow’s hip slipped under the bar. We hand lifted the heavy metal panel and roped it up so there was no pressure on the cow when she tried to stand.
Tired, miserable, shaking, the cow took her time.
After a bit she slid her whole back end out of the chute and stood. She stumbled a few feet from the squeeze and went down again. We let her be. We found new bolts. Put the squeeze back together. Worked the rest of the cattle.
Hours must have passed, but we were not checking watches. Just watching her.
When she finally stood and slowly walked to the other side of the corral where other animals were, we figured we’d keep her. Let the herd grow by a couple more. She had been through enough. She had had the fight and won.
Walking back to pasture 63 went down again near the shop. We left her behind thinking she was exhausted, maybe even calving early from the straining. The rest of the herd went into the pasture quiet, heads down.
We gathered the vaccinations from the corral. Brought No. 63 water. She still did not stand. Exhaustion? We were exhausted. And feeling terrible, thinking we should have put the bottom panel back when it first popped open so a hip could not get trapped. Should have closed the head braces faster before a cow pushes her neck through so she could not pull her head back, rear up and fall.
That evening No. 63 died. It hurts when you do a bad job. Congress, leave the affordable care law alone. You caused enough pain.
Marie Johnson is a Carson Valley rancher.