Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Calves at play

As I’ve said before, spring is a nice time of the year. It can be harsh at times, but it is the season of renewal and the countryside abounds with new life of all kinds; grasses and forbs, buds and leaves on trees and shrubs, new baby livestock and new baby wildlife. And there’s baseball.

In 1990 the renowned columnist and commentator George F. Will published a book titled “Men at Work, the Craft of Baseball.” While you may or may not like Will and his conservative politics, he’s a fine writer and “Men at Work” is perhaps the best baseball book written in the last 50 years.

The thesis of Will’s book is that while it’s true that baseball at the professional level is a boy’s game played by men, the men who get paid for playing the game approach their craft as professional craftsmen. Will writes in great detail about the work ethic and professionalism of four people who were active in the game during the late 1980’s: Oakland Manager Tony La Russa, L.A. pitcher Orel Hersheiser, San Diego slugger Tony Gwynn, and Baltimore’s modern Iron Man Cal Ripkin, Jr. If you’re a fan of the game, you might give ‘Men at Work” a try. It’s a good read.

But this piece is more about calves than baseball. I only mention Will’s book because while we were fixing fence the other day, my hired man and I paused to watch a group of calves at play. As I watched the calves and thought about our fencing labor, I thought, “here we have men at work and calves at play.”

A first-calf heifer and her new baby soak up the warm morning sunshine last week on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb. Click on the image for a larger view.
It’s fun to watch calves go from nearly-helpless newborn to playful, nearly-independent creature in only a few days. When they’re first born, they’re not yet strong or coordinated enough to travel far so mama sticks pretty close. Over the next few days, as the calves fill up on rich milk, they get stronger and more coordinated. Mama needs plenty of food to keep her milk production up, so she parks her calf in a reasonably safe area and grazes ever farther from her baby. Often the calves are cleverly hidden in shallow depressions or in thick brush, where they seem to instinctively know to remain quiet and still until mama returns.

After a few days, cow and calf rejoin the herd. Then the magic happens. The calves check each other out, like school kids on the playground. They’re tentative at first, almost as if they’re shy. But before long they become pals and spend more time together than with their mamas.

Filled with energy, on fine days they begin exploring their surroundings and learning what their new body is capable of. They prance and hop and jump around, butt heads a bit and get into shoving matches, curiously examine grass and fences and weeds and the stray scraps of paper and plastic that blow through the pasture.

Before long they learn that they can run like the wind. A group of eight or ten calves will suddenly take off at full speed, on who knows what signal, and tear off across the prairie, dashing in big, sweeping loops wherever their fancy takes them.

Watching their antics, it’s hard not to think that they are having fun, and it’s easy to equate their behavior with the play of children. They’re not children, of course, they’re young cattle. But they’re still playing, still finding some level of enjoyment in their fresh new lives and in their fresh, new bodies.

Watching the calves at play is part of the reason many of us choose to raise cattle. It’s a small part of the non-monetary compensation package we get. I doubt many of us would enjoy our profession as much if we weren’t able to take the time to watch calves at play. I know I wouldn’t.

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