Monday, March 3, 2014

The Orphan Shed

     There’s another orphan calf out in the shed.  Last night, Joe came in after feeding the cows and announced that he had an extra grey calf and couldn't figure out which cow it belonged to.  Only one cow had recently calved, but that was several days ago and now she was keeping vigilant watch over a little black baby.  While Joe spooled hay off the back of the tractor, this little grey calf ran up and down the line of cows as they followed him, bawling for a meal, but no mama claimed him.
     We fixed up a bottle of milk, and Joe took it out.  The calf sucked down the whole half gallon.  Apparently the mama cow with the black calf gave birth to twins, let them both nurse for a couple of days, and then decided two was too many so she abandoned one.  This can happen.  It makes me sad to think of a mama choosing one offspring over another, but I guess in the wild it makes sense for survival of the species.
     This morning we wake to temperatures in the low teens and blowing snow.  We both think immediately of the hungry grey calf.  “Maybe we better go out and see if he’s been claimed,” Joe says pulling on his coveralls.  “If he hasn't, then you’ll need to ride along with me.  We’ll catch him and bring him in.”
     It’s the kind of day that makes me wish I didn't have to go out.  The wind bites my nose and the sleet stings my cheeks as I pull the gate open for Joe.  There is no sign of our cows so we drive the quarter mile length of the field peering through the snowy air.  It will be hard to spot a grey calf in this weather.  Finally we see the herd of cows huddled on the lee side of a rock pile next to the river.  Icicles dangle from their sides and their black backs are completely frosted in white.  Hopefully the calf is in among them. 
     We both hop out of the truck and ease around the cows.  No sign of the calf.  Finally Joe spots him curled on top of a rock pile.  He is a big ball of grey fur and white snow and he blends in with the rocks.  He doesn't run very far before turning and letting Joe catch him.  He must remember the milk.
     We pull him into the truck and I ride back down the field with the calf shivering at my feet.  We turn off the heater because that coat of ice actually protects him from heat loss. If we melt it, he will be wet and chilled.  I stick my fingers in his mouth.  It’s warm, which is a great sign.
     When we get to the shed the other orphan calf butts me as we lead the little grey calf in.  He has had his morning grain, but because he was only recently weaned he believes that if he butts me hard enough milk will appear.  Luke, our dog who loves all living things, wiggles through the door and begins licking the new calf.  The calves and dog bow and jump a little in pretend play and I’m glad to see it.  There's a lot of life in this new calf.  Joe returns and offers the newest orphan a full bottle.  I offer my fingers to the black calf so he’ll stop nosing in for a share and he sucks contentedly on them long enough for the grey calf to finish the bottle. Then we leave the two calves to get acquainted.  I think our black orphan is happy to finally have a companion. 

     Raising bottle calves is difficult for me.  These are bulls, soon to become steers.  I have learned to resist their big black eyes and long eyelashes.  For one thing, they will soon be big enough to do some real damage to me if they continue to butt me for milk.  And, one day they will be sold for slaughter.  That’s the hard truth of this job.  They will have great, happy lives, but they are not pets.  When they are young and cute, sometimes that’s hard to remember.