So far the cows on our place reproduce the old-fashioned way. We don’t at this time use artificial insemination. The herd bull, 44, services them, and 9 or so months later, if all goes well, a healthy calf is born. We don’t interfere much, and nature takes its course. But sometimes the course nature takes is not the one you’d hoped for. A couple of weeks ago Glen and I spotted a newborn calf dead in the pasture. A little girl, likely stillborn. She was a big calf, and with greater size come greater birthing difficulties.
Carrion feeders had gathered. Glen was dressed for work and running late, so I urged him to leave and let the vultures and caracaras do their work. It isn’t pleasant, but they’d already begun, and they’re very efficient at what they do. (I drew the line at the coyote that showed up soon after, though. Thank heavens shouting and waving my arms persuaded it to leave.) On Glen’s way out the gate, he saw the mother cow standing some distance away. It was Ten-Eighty.
We call most of our cows by their numbers. The digits are freeze-branded on, so there’s no mistaking who we’re talking about, and we never forget their names. But there are a handful we’ve named like pets. There’s Princess, who can tiptoe across every cattle guard on the place, and who wears entitlement like a tiara. And the young bulls Larry, Moe and Curly. Simple, lowbrow names. There’s a reason they aren’t called Voltaire, Descartes and Plato. Cows have pretty simple natures.
That’s why it distressed and surprised me when Ten-Eighty began to mourn her baby, and didn’t stop for days. She stayed close by the spot where we’d found the body, calling and calling. Glen had long since removed what remained of the little thing, but Ten-Eighty circled the spot obsessively, sniffing the ground, then lifting her head and lowing. Initially she was approached by a couple of the other mother cows, but after the first day they left her alone to work it out. In about 3 or 4 days, she did.
We’ve had a healthy calf born into the herd since Ten-Eighty’s was lost, bringing us to 10 youngsters on the ground now. Once they grow up they’re cattle: more earnest, more concerned with the serious business of constant grazing, less likely to just break loose and be silly. But calves are like lots of other little mammals: curious, playful, and laugh-out-loud funny.
They get into everything and annoy their elders daily, who nevertheless treat them with surprising tolerance. Recently 44 was minding his own business, peacefully feeding, when a calf came up behind him and rammed its head between his hind legs and started nuzzling. (What it expected to find there, I can’t say.) 44 jumped and swiveled his enormous head and shoulders around. When he saw what had hold of his tender parts, he lowered his head and went back to grazing. Now that’s tolerance.
Ten-Eighty is much better now.
Soon 44 will breed her again, and we can begin the countdown, hoping this time for a healthy birth. Yes, we should have 11 babies on the ground, but we don’t. It wasn’t the first loss we’ve had, and it won’t be the last. Nature can be unpredictable. The one thing it’s always guaranteed to do, though, is take its course.
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