Even for a small scale cattle operation like ours, ranching can be a grim business. A few weeks ago I wrote about the death of one of our new babies, a little heifer calf. My guess is she was stillborn. Or maybe that’s just what I prefer to believe. I’d hate to think her mother birthed her and then walked away oblivious, leaving her to fate. The calf would have lain defenseless in the pasture, not yet strong enough to stand, unable to shield herself from the Black Vultures, Caracaras and coyotes that come at once to the scent of blood. Even if the mother cow didn’t at first realize what had happened, though, she later mourned for days, clearly feeling the loss. We felt it too.
The rancher understands that mortality is a given, whether it results from injury or disease, or so-called “acts of God.” On occasion it results from old age. Whatever the cause, though, if you raise livestock you have to accept that death will drive up your road more often than you’d like. Earlier this week we lost number 19, our best bull calf, at four months old.
When Glen first saw that 19 was in distress, he was afraid the calf had been kicked by his father, the herd bull. Calves can be bratty and annoying, and they’ll often get between the bull and whichever cow he’s romancing at the time. We know 44 Fully Loaded to be an even-tempered bull, however. Many times we’ve witness his benign behavior with the youngsters. They stumble over his enormous feet, get in his way when he’s eating, and mistake his tender parts for their mothers’ udders. 44’s patience with the calves is so exceptional that Glen realized 19’s sudden decline was likely caused by something else: snakebite.
The two veterinarians who examined the calf reached the same conclusion. And despite everyone’s best efforts and care, 19’s condition continued to deteriorate over several days, until finally the decision was made to put him down. It was the only humane choice that remained.
It was distressing; it was unexpected; it was nothing we could have foreseen. But now that nearly a week has passed, life in the herd continues much the same as before. The July heat is oppressive, of course, and the grownups like a daily dip to cool off.
There’s even a gain to report: another new baby on the ground—a heifer—and she’s already independent enough from her mother to play with her older half-siblings.
We don’t have thousands of acres; we don’t graze thousands of head of cattle. Our herd is small enough that I think of them as “cows” rather than “cattle.” “Cows.” You know, like “dogs.” But I realize they’re not pets. They don’t cuddle with us on the sofa; they don’t sleep in our bed at night. They live outdoors amid factors beyond our control. Where anything can—and does—happen. They’re livestock; they’re a commodity. But even while recognizing that, I’ve discovered something that wasn’t apparent to me at first. I’d thought they were largely interchangeable lookalikes, but that isn’t quite true. Now I’ve lived beside them long enough to see the differences, in appearance as well in personality. For herd animals, they’re unexpectedly . . . singular.
As for us, we like to do the same thing we’ve been doing since we moved here over a year ago: sit outside in the evenings and watch them all enjoying themselves. It makes the losses a little easier.
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