Skittish cows and tired farmers make for a bad start to season |

Skittish cows and tired farmers make for a bad start to season

by Marie Johnson

So far, we’ve had two babies. One is doing fine, running with his mother out in the field. The other never took a breath. It looked healthy enough lying there, but Mom started cleaning it at the wrong end. The birth sac did rip away from the calf’s nose as it slid out onto the ground. The cow licked the calf while it striggled to lift its head. I’ve seen it happen before.

During February and March, early spring calving, beef producers get no real sleep. Every four hours, or less, you have to check your calving heifers, first time calving cows, for trouble. If there is trouble you forfeit the rest of your night to pull a calf stuck inside a cow that doesn’t have the urge to push anymore now that the calf’s shoulders and head are hanging out. Or break a hip lock on a small cow calving too big a calf. Or a cow drops her healthy calf in a ditch. She’s protecting it from the wind and predators, but you rae mad too much stock water was in the ditch.

And it’s always a rodeo when February blizzards force you to be sure every new calf nurses before it freezes to death. You have to get close to a new mother to either check her bag or her baby’s nose to see if it’s warm. Once a heifer stepped on me after knocking me down, because I got too close to her newborn calf. She was doing the exact same thing the mother cow with the dead calf did the other day: cleaning her calf at the wrong end first.

She and about 20 other soon-to-be mothers were in a field up near the house. During the day I could just glance out the kitchen window to check the heifers. If I noticed activity I would note the time, get my binoculars and step into the backyard. I walk into the field only if I need a better angle to see, or if an animal needs help, because heifers are skittish. They’ve pulled protruding hooves back into their birth canal rather than finish calving with a strager in the field.

This one heifer was making fine progress. Her water bag emerged only 20 minutes earlier. She was lying down, pushing hard, on the other side of the ditch. Even though things were going smoothly, I hated waiting. I understand the extreme frustration expectant fathers must feel when all they can do is offer encouragement from the sidelines, when they really want to get in there and do something! Then, with one last big push, out slides the baby. Standing in the backyard, I jump up and silently mouth, “Yes!”

Through the binoculars I notice the filmy white sac still covering the calf’s head. No! Seconds pass. The cow starts licking at the calf’s tail. More seconds pass. The head isn’t bobbing up any more. What to do? Minutes pass. The head lays still. Mom is circling and sniffing but not licking near the calf’s head.

It must have been the lack of sleep. I drop the field glasses, vault the fence and run! What was I thinking? I get to the ditch and jump. The cow looks up and there is where I meet her head. Lying on my back, I open my eyes to see the cow’s rear hooves barely clear my head. Loud barking has drawn her away from me. My dog must have followed me into the field. He saved me from getting the stomping I deserved. Instead I got a deep cut on the fleshy part of my thigh. The calf was healthy. It just died.