George had his leg x-rayed and it turns out it isn't broken, which sure is a relief to me - I wasn't quite ready to become a full-time rancher. He and mom were out early Sunday morning and I (finally) had a bit of good news to share with them: Mama cat had her babies. She had two grey and two yellow kittens - all healthy and unbearably adorable. And the most exciting part is that two of them have bobbed tails! Which leaves no question as to who the papa is...that ol' rascal Max. I'm like a proud grandma and can hardly wait for how ridiculously cute those little Manx kitties are going to be.
Dad and Jerry went to check the cows and asked me to bring out the hay rig after an hour or so. They were planning to sort some of the pairs out of the 'heavys' into other pastures. After checking cows they were going to come back out on the four-wheelers and wanted some hay on the ground to keep the cows from scattering. I waited around a bit longer than they asked me to and had a feeling I should maybe just wait for them to get back before heading out, but decided to just take my time out to the meadows. There was still no sign of them after I got out there, so I just idled down and waited. After a bit, some cows spooked at the far end of the meadow and I assumed I'd see the pickup any minute. Instead I saw two small figures that didn't look like cows - it was George and Jerry on foot. I drove over to them - they had found a cow who was breach (her calf was coming out backwards) and got stuck in the boggy meadow ground trying to get over to her. They figured it would be just as fast to walk back as to ride in the tractor, so I started feeding hay and they kept walking.
As I was loading another stack, they came back through - George on the bike (four-wheeler) and Jerry driving the tractor. I went back to the house and started some dinner. They went back and pulled out the pickup and started trailing the cow back. Once I heard them return, I went down to let them know I had dinner about ready. As I got down to the calving barn, I heard a hellofa ruckus. The cow they'd brought in was ramming and kicking the barn door and it was swinging out about a foot or so each time. The door was starting to come open, so I was heading over to shut it when Jerry came running around - he told me to stand back, then shut the door, and asked me to make sure it didn't slide open again.
So I stood outside, unable to see what was going on in the barn, and just listened to the crashing and cussing. The situation in the calving barn is terrible - if you need to help a cow with her labor, first you've got to get her immobilized so that she will remain still and can't hurt you in the process. This requires getting her into a 'headcatch', which squeezes along the sides of her neck, so that she can't move forward or back. The headcatch in the calving barn is real piece - I'm not even sure what all is wrong with it, but I know from the choice of adjectives used to describe it that it's far from ideal. The whole situtation in there is just ridiculous and it's practically a miracle if you can get anything accomplished without getting killed in the process.
I just kept listening for their voices, to make sure they were both still conscious. After one particularly loud crash, Dad's cussing went up a notch and I heard Jerry ask him if he thought it was broke. Apparently the cow had kicked the gate and Dad's leg had been hit by the gate in front and a board in back. The impact split the board in two and I could hear that he was in pain. At this point things were at a bit of a standstill, so they hollered out for me to go get the 'hotshot', as neither of them could leave or they'd lose all the progress they'd gained.
I ran and got the hotshot and went around to the back of the barn. Jerry was holding tension on a rope around her head and George was at the headcatch, ready to lock it down as soon as she stuck her head in. I went to the gate and gave her a few little shocks in the rear. She was about as stubborn as the two men trying to help her. We went on like this for a while, to no result. Then dad limped up to the house to look for something to knock her out. Unable to find the right drug, they decided to forget the headcatch and just rope her legs to immobilize her.
Her water had broken some hours before and she'd been thrashing around for so long now, that we assumed the calf was probably dead. After finally getting the cow down, they pulled (and surprisingly, she pushed) and got the calf out. Delivering a dead calf after several hours of stressful laboring and literally risking their lives was a bummer, to say the least.
As they got the cow up and out of the barn, I went in to get dinner ready. Shaping hamburger patties in the kitchen, I was struck by the connection between the raw meat in my hands the efforts we'd just made to save a cow and her calf. Though I knew the answer, I couldn't help asking myself 'Is THIS why we do this?'.
Later that afternoon, I went out to feed hay. Afternoon sun, a cool breeze, the first meadowlark song of Spring, geese and hawks overhead, majestic bare cottonwoods in the meadow with new baby calves playing and skipping around them, their mamas humming to them nearby. THIS is why we do this. The end product of this business may be steak and burgers, but for us, I think these babies are the accomplishment of our year. There is hardly anything more charming or gratifying than a pair - a cow and her calf - walking together, the new calf stumbling behind and running ahead, stopping for a bit of milk, and walking on side by side.
When I fed hay last Friday, I noticed a couple of cows that looked like they might be about to calve. I relayed my suspicions and predicted we'd have our first babies by morning. Given my relative inexperience, I'm not sure anyone took me too seriously. Adam and Azure arrived late that night and the next morning Adam found 3 new babies. There have been an increasing number born each day since - I think we had about 13 yesterday. So far everything is going pretty well, but that's not to say there haven't been a few little tragedies.
Adam came in one morning and asked if I could come help him. There was a prolapsed cow and he wanted to try to get her back to the barn. Adam caught her calf and put him in the back of the pick-up. I started driving towards the house and she followed for about 50 yards before collapsing. She was probably in shock and it was an especially bad prolapse, so he decided we'd just have to work on her out in the pasture. Adam knew that there was basically no chance of her surviving, but it was probably for the best that I nievely thought we could still save her. We came back to the house to get supplies: warm water, plastic sheeting, and the medical kit. Azure came along with us as well.
I hadn't expected to have to do much other than trying to keep the cow from getting up. But before long I was gloved up to my shoulders and right in there with Adam, leaving Azure to hold the tail. We probably spent over an hour working on her. She died as Adam tied the last suture. We all three were exhausted, but as Adam said 'we made a valiant effort'. None of us had ever seen a prolapse put in, but you'd have never known that Adam hadn't done it before - he was calm and determined throughout the entire ordeal. Apparently, he'd covered this very procedure in one of his classes the week before - we were all joking that he'd have to go back and tell his professor a thing or two about how it isn't quite as easy in 'real life' as he'd made it seem 'on paper'.
We tracked down her calf and brought him back with us - a little bull, red with a white face: our first 'bucket calf'. By the time I got back from feeding hay that evening there was a second bucket calf. We think she was probably a twin, but her mother only claimed the other twin. It took them a couple of tries to figure out how to suckle the bottle, but now they are both doing really well. And of course they think I'm their mother now, which is pretty endearing.
We lost a calf last night, so they're trying to 'make a match' now. The cow that lost her calf and the calf who lost his mother a few days ago are in 'solitary confinement' together in calving barn now. Hopefully her maternal instincts will kick in and she'll adopt this other baby as her own. Since the cow identifies her baby in large part by its smell, they drapped the hide of the cow's lost calf over the orphan, to trick the cow into thinking it's her own.
We're starting to turn the corner, from Winter into Spring. Beneath the blanket of brown, I can feel the stirrings and stretching of green things beginning to wake. It has been around 50 degrees the last few days, the sky has been looking different (goodbye dear Winter sunsets), and it is even starting to smell fresh and spring-y.
Gus woke me at midnight last night - it was warm and raining and smelled like heaven. The spring-rain smell was gone by morning, so I'm glad (for once) that Gus pulled me from my slumber.
The birds can feel the building energy of Spring too. Yesterday a swarm of swallows were fussing all day in a big cottonwood by the pond. I could hear the hum of their chatter even from inside the house. The Canada geese which Winter around here have been loud and fiesty lately as well. And I saw my first robin - a fat lady, high up above the house, surveying the territory.
And soon there will be many more new arrivals. Not only a few hundred baby calves, but a few baby kittens as well. Mama cat is pregnant again, and looks about ready to pop. I've been letting her in the bunkhouse each night in hopes that she'll have her kittens there, since her last batch had such a rough time. We're all anxious to see who will come first - a kitten or a calf.
And speaking of new arrivals, my dear friend Azure is coming today. She will be my first real visitor since I moved here last June and she couldn't have picked a better (busier) time to visit, what with all hell about to break loose. I'm anxious to show off my 'new' life to an 'old' friend. She's a far more talented photographer than I, so there will likely be some great new photos here soon.
After feeding the cows this morning, I headed back into the stackyard to load another stack. I am starting to get a feel for backing up the trailer and managed to get it perfectly positioned without even losing my temper. Then I got everything set and backed under the stack - practically perfectly. (Certainly not bad for my first time doing it solo, anyway.) I'm tremendously relieved.
the gear shift and hydraulic controls: a bite of hay and a mess of hydraulics: