The Start of Calving Season

The rain pours today. Sheep hunker down, round balls of wool with faces. Cattle munch on hay. Horses enthusiastically chomp on grain. The dog curls up on straw piles in the barn, tail wrapping around ears.

Calving season started last week, two weeks early. Four calves have been born; only two have lived. Most of the mothers have been heifers, first-timers.

I ride a quad bike through the cow pasture, counting to 31 to see that everyone is present.

The number was 32 for a little while.

But when I made my rounds Thursday night, looking for signs of new or about-to-be-born calves, I found a heifer lying to the side. She wasn’t breathing hard, but she didn’t move when I approached, either.

Then, she stood, and I saw the calf. It hadn’t survived, and it was still in her. All I could see was the head. I walked her to a makeshift corral of steel posts and wire panels. She walked slowly with no resistance. I closed the gate and fetched supplies from the barn: pulling chains, a halter, a lasso. The halter I tightened around her ears and under her chin, and the lasso I looped around her neck, knotting the ends of both around a steel fence post.

The calf had to be removed, or we would lose the heifer, but I couldn’t pull the calf until I brought the front legs forward in the birth canal. Reaching in as far as possible with my right hand, I couldn’t feel the front legs at all. I tugged at the ears halfheartedly. Poor guy.

It was a lost cause for one person. She needed a veterinarian.

I called the emergency line–of course, things like this only happen after hours, I thought–and left a message. Then, I popped open a can of gravy-filled dog food for Toby and poured it into his portable dog food bowl, thin blue plastic I’d bought at the variety store on the town square, and sat on the tailgate to wait.

It’d been wet and gray during the day, but now, the sun broke through. Charcoal clouds textured the sky behind stark, leafless branches that led to stout trunks by the corral. Gold light rendered every detail on the bark sharp, the trees fearless.

I stared. There was light before the darkness, sun before the clouds, revealing nothing of the heifer’s distressing situation.

The vet called for directions. The light faded. I went inside to warm up a Marie Callender’s microwaveable meal and sat to eat it on the front concrete stoop, saving the couch from my muddy jeans. Blood and mucus dried on my sweatshirt sleeve as I scooped chicken and peas and carrots into my mouth, watching for the white Chevy pick-up bringing medicine and supplies.

It was darkening quickly. I strung two extension cords from the barn to the corral to hook up a work lamp, but the light didn’t cast far. The vet arrived with a head lamp. I used the glaring beam from my cell phone to navigate, my own head lamp six miles away at my house. Of course it’s at the house; we didn’t expect calves this early.

We brought calf-pulling supplies and a bucket of hot water and soap through the main pasture gate and into the corral. Then, we gently approached the heifer. I tried to tighten the halter and lasso, but the heifer panicked and leaped over the wire panel, catching her leg in the halter.

“We’re trying to help you!” we exclaimed as we worked furiously to loosen the halter and lasso. Once we had, we situated her next to some trees, looping the ropes around them so that she could be more secure.

Dad arrived then. We held some gates along her sides to steady her, and then the vet looked for the calf’s front legs, reaching in with concentration on her face.

“He’s been gone for a while,” she said, explaining that there would have been no signs of labor. An owl in a tree behind me hooted in reply. Another called from a grove of trees next to my truck.

The vet tugged hard when she found one front leg, and then the other. She wrapped the metal links of the pulling chains around the legs and tugged on triangular handles.

But the calf wasn’t moving. We switched to using the jack, which provided more leverage by using a winch to pull a long cord. The entire calf finally emerged. We let the heifer go after administering medication and gathered our things.

As the vet cleaned her equipment, I rolled up the extension cords and stored them and the work lamp in the barn. Orion hunted overhead.

“The legs were tucked underneath and criss-crossed,” the vet said before she left. “It’s no wonder you couldn’t find them.”

There was nothing we could have done. It was one of the worst feelings for me as a livestock producer–being unable to do anything for an animal. I clung to the thought, At least we saved the heifer.

But after that, every time I checked on her, she was alone, away from the rest of the herd, and it didn’t look like she’d eaten or drunk anything. It seemed infection had set in despite the medications.

We lost her on Sunday.

Down to 31.

The rain continues. It washes away the blood from my sweatshirt sleeve, the dirt, the discouragement. It reveals the knowledge I’ve always had that sometimes, despite all my best efforts, there truly is nothing to be done. Nature has its ways. I must learn to work with them, be at peace with them, fight against what I can and let go of the things I can’t.

I do this so that when Golden Hour comes, I can sit and stare from the tailgate with thankfulness that there is always light after the darkness and sun succeeding the clouds.

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