The Heifer That Was Determined To Die

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Sometimes you can’t save ’em no matter how hard you try.

This heifer was carrying a giant calf which she couldn’t deliver. Beau and Mel found her out in the pasture early Friday morning, and she had all but given up on labor.  The calf (which we later weighed at 97 pounds) was halfway out, hip-locked, and dead. The failed birthing had pinched a nerve in the heifer’s back and she was left partially paralyzed and unable to stand. The men pulled her dead calf and took it away, leaving her sitting up in a green pasture on a sunny day to rest.

Later on Friday, the kids and I bumped out to the pasture in the Polaris Ranger with protein cake for the heifer. As we drove near where she sat, she attempted to stand but couldn’t lift her back end off the ground. Her eyes were bright, though, and despite her flight instinct, she hungrily gobbled the cake I dumped out of a bucket as we drove by. (One has to be careful around cattle in a situation like this. A cow’s Injured, Scared, and Angry emotions are basically one and the same. I knew there was a good chance that if my kids and I made this heifer too uncomfortable by sticking around too long, all those emotions could culminate in a moment of her being able to stand and charge in fury.  I certainly did not want to be pinned under a paralyzed heifer out in the pasture with my 5-year-old trying to figure out what to do to rescue me, so I opted for the safe choice and did a drive-by feeding.)

Saturday morning was colder and windy. Again the kids and I took the heifer a bucket of cake, and this time I took along a 5-gallon water bottle and a tub as well. To my delight the heifer stood as we drove up to her.  She still couldn’t walk, she was quaking, and her one back ankle kept knuckling over… but she could stand!  She watched with desperate eyes as I poured the water in the tub, then scooted it as close to her as I dared — probably within 5 feet.  Again, being ever aware of the kids in the vehicle behind me, of the fact that her fight instinct could snap at any time, I was leery of getting too close.

I drove away, hoping that if we left her in peace she would be able to inch forward to food and water. As we headed back home, though, I looked back and saw two other curious heifers picking at the cake I’d left for our patient. Grrrr! Well, at least now she would recognize that I was bringing her good things… and a little competition might be incentive for her.

Later on Saturday afternoon — this time with my visiting mom in tow — the kids and I headed out yet again with cake and water.  First stop:  the gate between the corral and the heifer pasture, which should’ve been open, as the heifers have been watering from the tank in the corral this spring.  This time, though, the gate was shut (I later found out this was an oversight on my husband’s part). Several heifers were laying at the gate wishing to come in and drink. I hemmed and hawed at the gate, wondering why it might be closed and whether or not I should let the heifers in. While I was hemming, the heifers — full of green grass and with a cold wind under their tails — took a notion to race away from me and the corral. I realized too late that my paralyzed heifer was among those at the gate. Hallelujia! She could walk! She had walked to the corral for water… only to find the gate shut.

When the other heifers took off racing away from the corral, her instincts got the best of her and she took off, too… hobbling up the trail in the opposite direction of the water tank. Her ankles were knuckling, her back end was wobbling from southwest to southeast, she had that crazy-thirsty glint in her eye, and she was gaunt… but by golly she was determined to head north.  Away from the water tank, away from the corral, and away from the barn where I’d hoped she could recover.

Knowing nothing good could come of me and my mom and my kids attempting to change the heifer’s mind with the help of our purebred Polaris Ranger steed, I went the other direction. Out in the pasture I picked up the water tub from where she’d lay, then I circled around and came south down the trail on which she was destined north. I hoped she’d turn back to the corral when she saw us coming; instead, she veered to the right of the trail… and into a coulee. My heart sank as she limped off the edge, then fell down the hill and rolled to a rest in the bottom of the coulee.

Determined to save this heifer, I drove the Ranger down into the coulee as my mom gasped and grasped for safety handles.  The heifer was sitting up and watched me with wary eyes as I unloaded her water pan and filled it with water — hoping the delicious splashing sound of the water would catch her interest enough to make her stay — then threw out a little cake.  I worked quickly, then drove away, hoping she would rest.  As I looked back, though, I saw that she’d stood again and was, as ever, bound northward… completely snubbing the water and cake I’d left.

The cowboys were otherwise detained and there was no chance of me and my little crew fixing this problem now.  The heifer was on her own.

Sunday morning dawned cold and rainy. Beau returned from his early-morning heifer check to report that the crippled heifer had indeed continued northward up the coulee… until she’d stumbled into the spillway for a big reservoir. Desperate for a drink, she’d bogged in the spillway… and there she was stuck in the mud.  Wearing a slicker, knowing he had to try, Beau returned to her with the Ranger, hoping to pull her out.  The cold rain turned to snow as he left the house.

I wasn’t there to see it, but based on Beau’s report, he did pull the heifer out of the mud. He had to pull her under a fence and into another pasture to do it, but by golly he got her out.  Unfortunately, the effects of hypothermia are just as real in a cow as a human. Beau and Mel helped the heifer sit up, but she was chilled through to the bone, and the wet snow falling from the sky wasn’t helping matters.  With the gumbo mud growing heavier with every wet snowflake, the guys knew there was zero chance of getting a vehicle to her to attempt a transport back to the barn.  They had no choice but to leave her there in the rain.

By the time Beau made it back to the house, we knew she was probably a goner.  And sure enough she was.

If you’re in agriculture, this story could be yours.  It has been ours many times before.  Through the years and through varying circumstances, we have lost calves, heifers, cows, bulls, horses, and dogs.  I wouldn’t say life is cheap here on the ranch… but every day it’s pretty clear that it’s not guaranteed, either.  I understood that from a very early age.

She was the first heifer we lost this calving season.  Surely not the first calf we’ve lost… but a calf is cheap compared to a heifer.  And we’re not just talking about market price here.  What I mean is this:  we’d already kept this heifer — and Everyheifer here — alive for two years.  She was born on the PV.  We’ve invested time, feed, energy, maybe even heartache into getting her this far.  We’ve bred her to calve even though she’ll be not much more than a teenage mother, and we’ve accepted the responsibility of helping her through the tumultuous experience of first-time-calving and first-time-motherhood.  We just plain know the heifer better than we do the calf.  If it comes down to saving the calf or the heifer — and goodness knows that’s a choice one never hopes to have to make — we’re always glad to save the heifer.

This time we couldn’t do it.  She was determined to die.  Or was she?  Did our all-too-human mistakes set her up to fail?  There are always doubts:  Man, I wish I’d somehow made sure the other heifers hadn’t gotten into the first tub of water I took her.  I wish I’d realized she was there when I opened that gate.  I wish I’d opened the gate, then turned around and left… and maybe she and the other heifers would’ve come on into the corral.  I wish I’d left her alone… she probably would’ve been better off without my clumsy attempts to save her.

We never know, do we?  Our work with animals is paradoxical:  We’re the ones who can save them… yet sometimes we hurt more than we help.  We lead them to life-saving water… but the bull we’ve bred them to, the barn we’ve built, our very smell:  it paralyzes them, it rockets their blood pressures, it messes with their minds.

And because of all those things, we lost her and her calf.  She wasn’t our first.  She won’t be the last.  She’s just another one we almost saved.

© Tami Blake

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