"Not another dead calf," I cried out to Pete as we watched the scene before us of a mother cow licking a lifeless form draped upon the ice. My breath rose up in billows in the frosty, morning air while Pete just shook his head in frustration. It almost seemed too much. There had been so many that winter.
Our first season of calving on that ranch 14 years ago had been one of bitter disappointment and disbelief. We'd always prided ourselves on a high "live calf" percentage but this place we'd just hired onto seemed doomed to failure. Pete had set up many calving checks throughout the day and night. We'd all make regular walks through the herd during the day, and then at night, Candy and Judy, the hired couple who lived in a small camp down the road, would come check at 8 pm.
I would put on my heavy coveralls, knit stocking-cap and mittens and, with flashlight in hand, do the 10 pm check. That would usually put me back into the house around midnight if nothing was awry. Then, Pete would check again in the wee hours of the morning, come back, and by that time, we'd be ready to feed hay and be able to do a really good check again. 'Round and 'round, the cycle of calving, as it is done wherever cows are giving birth on ranches and farms.
But here, we'd experienced oddities and abnormalities we'd never seen before. Aborted, full-term calves; ones which were born too mentally-handicapped to nurse, even from a bottle; one born with no eyes; another found dead but obviously misshapened.
Finally, we'd taken one corpse to the vet's for a necropsy to see if anything could be found. After costly lab tests and interviews with past ranch managers, we learned that the "calving pasture" had been the site of a bad salmonella outbreak in the cow herd about five years earlier. How difficult to imagine that viruses and bacteria can stay in the ground for years and impact a calf crop at such a later date!
But on this bitterly-cold morning, these were all facts we had not yet learned and we were in the throes of dealing with the most arduous and challenging calving season of our careers.
The Hereford cow, devoted mother that she was, mooned over the dead calf in front of her. There was nothing we could really do for her. Pete headed north to walk up on the ledge to check the cows and heifers up there while I crossed the creek to search for any more births that could be found. As I leaped across the small stream, my ankles hurt where the chilblains on my heels scraped against the cold rubber of irrigation boots.
Over by the creep feeder where calves could nose their way into a trough filled with grain safely inaccessible to their mamas, a little, newborn, Hereford bull-calf bawled for an absent mother. I looked around and could not see evidence of any cow nearby who looked to have calved the night before. No cow moaning for a lost calf; none nosing other cows' calves to check for her own; nothing lying down or trailing afterbirth from beneath her tail.
What a mystery! Here was a new baby calf, but no mother! How could that be?
Then, it hit me. The cow who was mooning over the dead calf had delivered twins and had accepted the dead one but rejected the live one. I called to Pete to come help me.
She was easy to get into the calving barn as Pete drug the dead calf by the heels. The old gal followed close behind with her nose to the ground, desperate to be with her baby who would never
stand up and nurse nor see the light of day. I pushed along the rejected calf and when we got to the calving barn, Pete put the cow into the milking stanchion and we tried to push the live calf onto her teat, to be sure the little bull got the all-important colostrum, or "first milk" from his mother.
She would have none of it. Wrenching her head side to side, knocking the metal of the chute with her horns, she kicked the calf viciously. We were eventually able to get the thick, yellow, rich milk into the calf, and then turned both cow and calf into a stall filled with fresh straw. As far as the cow was concerned, the wobbly red calf was an alien from outer space and the furthest she could get from it, the better.
Grabbing a white plastic bucket, I opened the door in the back of the barn, heading up the hill to the calving grounds at the request of my ranch manager husband, who had instructed me to "go get the afterbirth." I knew what he wanted and why. We'd worked together daily on ranches for all of our married years and teamwork had become instinctual. We needed to rub the afterbirth all over the living calf in order to transfer the scent from the cow and dead calf and thus help the cow to accept this little boy.
Some ranch folks will skin out the dead calf and tie the hide over the back of the "grafted-on" calf for several days in order to fool the cow, and we would do that, as well, but first, we'd try the easier task of simply rubbing the placenta with hopes that would work as well as it usually did.