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You can feel proud even though a cow does all the work

by Marie Johnson

I shouldn’t be so proud, but I am. The first calf is here; showed up beginning of January, a month early.

Number 93, black with red highlights in his short, shiny coat, wobbly legs and curious nose, he’s staying close to mom. He could have been considered premature had he come during bad weather and was not so large. You might have figured his mom was in stress and calved early, but until the storm that day, the weather has been fine.

There are seven more of these cute, four-legged things bucking around out in the field, so I’ll confess – a bull got in early. It is an embarrassment and maybe is why ranchers don’t like to make their stories public, but admitting mistakes helps keep integrity.

I saw my first calf born 13 years ago during a freezing February night. It was laid on a receiving blanket of crusty snow. I was in complete shock.

How can you leave it out in the cold? It’s covered with slime! Put it in the barn! Help it stand up! How will it know where to nurse? The coyotes! We can’t leave this little, wet, shivery thing out here. We’ve got to do something! It was apparent I had never witnessed the spectacle of live birth before.

My husband Kent and I were sitting in a pick up about 100 feet from the pair. Soft snowfall was reflected in the truck lights. We watched the mom stand and start cleaning the calf. Asking me to calm down and be patient, Kent turned off the headlights, leaving the pair in peace.

Sitting in the dark, Kent explained we calve in early spring for two main reasons: first, to have the calves at a decent size, ready for the first grass when it is optimally available; second, it’s a clean time of year – no flies to bother the animals or spread disease.

Worms are frozen or covered by a shield of snow. The cold is a sanitizer. Kent also said if we tried to pen up expectant moms, they get agitated and look to jump out of the corrals rather than getting down to the business of having the calf and being a good mom.

Ordinarily, cows go off from the main herd to be alone when birthing, or they have difficulty being imprinted with their calf’s smell. I have seen two cows that calved very near each other trying to claim the same calf, ignoring the second calf, possibly to death. Penning up one pair helped re-establish the strong scent bond between cow and calf. It is nature, imprinting and instinct, and after watching it work time after time, I am calmer but still amazed.

Normally, calves shake their heads as soon as they are out of mom and try to stand 30 minutes later. Their first attempts are feeble. Like walking on an iced-over pond, the calves repeatedly try and fail, with legs splayed out. Finally, their whole body trembles from the strain, but they stand. Every single calf alive out there now did it. After conquering standing, the calf walks a few steps toward its mom.

If she’s experienced, she stays quiet and lets the calf discover where milk comes from. Sometimes it takes a while for the mother to be calm and still, but the calf is persistent. There are a few false starts on the wrong end, but the calf keeps bumping mom with its head until a soft spot is discovered, a familiar smell known from eons of previous experience, and he starts nursing.

Watching all this happen in the low beam lights of a pick up is very frustrating, but regular checking is important in case delivery assistance is needed. Helping sometimes hurts. You have to be prepared, and intervene only when things are going bad, knowing what you do won’t make it any worse.

And, after all your watching and readiness, if things work out by themselves, you can go back into your warm house feeling proud. You achieved something, even it it was just patience.

n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 9, and Bradley, 6. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.

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