So about Tubby and all those rainbows and unicorns...
|In the middle of the storm, becoming hypothermic.|
Things don't always go the way you want them to. Plans seldom survive first contact with reality.
Everything looked just about perfect Sunday morning. The calves were all alive, Tubby's mom had found him in the barn, it looked like he'd nursed, the weather was clearing. Just about perfect.
|A remarkable recovery.|
Which set the alarm bells ringing in my mind.
By late morning Tubby's mom had left the barn but Tubby had stayed behind. He was still there in the afternoon. Every time he caught sight of me he perked up and came running.
As it turned out, he'd bonded with me, and not with his real mom. As far as he was concerned, he got born, a lot of crazy-cold-bad-scary stuff happened, and the next thing he knew he was warm, dry, safe, and the Naval Air Cowman was giving him the milk and attention he needed.
As far as 2031 -- Tubby's mom -- was concerned, something crazy-cold-bad-scary had happened to her calf. He flopped over and stopped moving, then the noisy-drivey thing appeared in a cloud of brilliant light and the person-thing stomped around in the snow, making rude noises. When the person-thing and noisy-drivey thing went away, her calf had disappeared. So she went looking, and she looked everywhere, for hours. Finally, she found something in the barn that looked like her calf, and sounded like her calf, but didn't smell like her calf. She tried and tried to figure it out, but she couldn't. And when she saw that the calf in the barn was bonded with the Naval Air Cowman, she knew it wasn't her calf. So she went looking again.
When early evening rolled around, the cow was still looking. She seemed to be more and more convinced that 617, who'd been born to 2156 a couple of hours before she had her baby, was actually her calf. Which of course agitated 2156 to no end, and probably made 617 feel like the prize in a custody battle. Or something like that.
|617 and his mom, a couple of hours after he was born.|
I decided to relocate Tubby from the barn to the paddock where his mom was currently causing problems. Maybe if her real calf was present her universe would once again make sense. The easiest thing to do was to pick him up and carry him to the pickup. He didn't mind -- in fact he seemed to like the experience. It wasn't the first time he'd been carried by the Naval Air Cowman, so in his world it was just business as usual. As I carried him through the ankle-deep mud of the corral he contentedly peed on me.
I don't think he was overjoyed to be left in the middle of the paddock though. He began bawling loudly and chased frantically after the pickup as I drove away, but he was intercepted by his mom and for a little while it looked like they'd work out an arrangement. In the mean time, I kicked all the yet-to-calve cows out of the paddock and back onto the range. It didn't take much kicking, because they'd all been lining the fence since the end of the storm, eyeballing all that lush green grass on the other side.
My work was done for the moment, so I sped away and left the cows and calves alone for the night, hoping that the two confused pairs would get it all sorted out on their own terms once the distraction of my presence had gone.
The next sunrise revealed that a magical transformation had not, in fact, occurred.
Tubby was by himself, a quarter-mile from the other cattle, bawling piteously. He came running when he saw me, as fast as his long little calf legs would carry him. Sigh.
Now this is a curious thing. It's very endearing when a calf bonds with you. It's a lovely feeling to see them perk up and come running, to have them nuzzle you and follow you around. It makes you feel good and needed and gives you an opportunity to pet a calf, which you simply never get to do in any other circumstance. At least not with range cattle.
It's easy to make yourself think that the calf likes you, enjoys and desires your companionship like a dog does, or even like a human child does. But it's not the same thing at all. The calf sees you as a source of milk. Period. He's hungry, and he's got a powerful instinct driving him to nurse, nurse, nurse. Period. He's not interested in being petted, in hanging out. He's not going to want his tummy scratched. He's not curious about what you are, what you're going to do, what adventures you might have together. He knows what you are. You are the source of milk. Period. And he wants milk. Period. Which is kind of a bummer, a let-down for the part of you that warms and smiles when the little shit comes running. It's a good let-down though, because it's a lesson presented by nature. A lesson that teaches humility, scale, context, and most importantly, that you are not in charge, that you, too, have a proper place in the universe.
On Saturday evening, after Tubby had come out of the lifesaving bath, all warmed up and tottering around the basement looking for milk, I watched as my niece Julia was exposed to this lesson. She was sitting on the floor, taking pictures and videos with her phone, probably periscoping the experience to the world. She was enthralled. As were we all. Every few minutes, when the calf would turn her way, she'd extend her hand and wiggle her fingers, the kind of thing that would instantly attract a puppy or a kitten.
But it didn't attract Tubby. Not at all. And I could sense Julia's disappointment. A calf is simply and unequivocally not a puppy or a kitten or a human toddler. It's fundamentally different. Cattle are mammals, and social animals, so they are similar to humans and cats and dogs. But they don't socialize with other species the way dogs and cats and humans do. They just don't do it. I suspect it's because they are prey animals, rather than predators. They are, at a very basic level, different.
It's a good lesson, a glimpse of the reality of rainbows and unicorns. A growing up lesson that not everyone gets to experience.
On Monday morning the two mamas and their babies had a problem. Tubby was still looking to me for sustenance, and the cows were pushing each other around in an effort to claim 617. And poor 617 wasn't getting enough to eat. He was laid up dejectedly near the tree line, ears drooping and beginning to shiver a bit.
This is the part where I earn my pay. I was going to have to separate the pairs in pens up by the barn. Tubby and his mom would have to be closely confined in a small pen, and depending on how things went, 617 and his mom might need the same.
But more importantly, at least in the short term, I needed to get some energy into 617. Left together in a pen and away from Tubby's mom, he might get up on his own and nurse. But he might not, and if he didn't, he'd just get weaker and weaker and eventually die. Fortunately, there's an app for that.
I picked up Tubby again and put him in the cab of the pickup. He was overjoyed to see me, so that part was easy. I took him back to the barn and shut the door to keep him inside for the moment.
Now for the tough problem (or one of the tough problems). I had to get 617 and the feuding cows into the corrals. There was no way I'd be able to "drive" them in; they were too focused on trying to claim the calf. If I couldn't drive them, I'd have to get them to follow me. That part would be, in theory, pretty easy. They both wanted to claim the calf, so wherever the calf went, they would follow.
Two problems with that from my perspective. The cows were both pretty agitated and being driven by strong maternal instincts, one of which is to protect the calf. One or both might decide they had to attack me to protect the calf. At 1,100 pounds, tough, and agitated, that's a fight they'd win hands down if it was conducted on their turf. I'd have to use my non-physical advantages of reasoning ability and experience.
The second problem wasn't really that big a deal, but it would be a challenge. The calf was laid up about a half-mile from the corrals. The path was anything but a straight line, and the ground of the paddock was saturated from the rain and snow, muddy and treacherous. A nice option would have been to put the calf in the back of the pickup and let the cows follow along as I drove to the corrals. There was simply no way to use the pickup, though. It was far too muddy, the trees were in the way, and there were too many small gates to navigate.
It was time to see if I was still fit enough to run the 880-with-60-lb-calf-through-mud.
|The first half of the course, two days later. Most of the mud and all of the snow has gone.|
Nothing to it but to do it.
It only took about 4-5 minutes to carry the calf that half-mile. But boy, it was a good workout! I was puffing pretty good by the time I deposited the calf in the barn with Tubby. Both cows followed right along from the tree line, through the corrals, and into the barn. It was as if they'd read the plan and were doing their best to execute it the way I'd drawn it up.
That's not what they were doing though. They were doing as nature directed them to do. The secret of my newfound success was working with nature, rather than trying to dominate and dictate terms.
I sorted 2031 out of the barn and ran her into the squeeze chute. Then I spent about five minutes reintroducing Tubby to his mom's udder. He caught on pretty quickly, which was a very good sign, but he kept abandoning the udder and turning back to me, looking for the bottle.
|"You want me to do what? YGTBSM!"|
I returned to the barn and put about a quart and a half of colostrum into 617 with the drenching tube. I carried him over to a pile of clean straw in sunshine where his mom began to nuzzle and lick him. As I left the barn he seemed to be perking up already.
I let Tubby's mom out of the chute and kicked the pair over to the east corral. I hoped that Tubby would now begin to see the cow as his mom and go to her for sustenance when his tummy started to growl. It probably wouldn't be that easy, but I'd give it a couple of hours and see what happened.
I got on with the day, which included a half-dozen new calves being born. It was a busy day.
When I returned to the corrals in the evening 617 was dashing around the corral, crow hopping and kicking up his heels, while his mom looked on patiently. They were good to go. It's amazing what a belly full of milk and warming sunshine can do. I opened the gate and let the pair amble out to rejoin the herd.
|Ready to return to the herd.|
Tubby, on the other hand, hadn't quite figured it all out. He scampered up to the gate where I stood on the other side, bawling for his supper. Sigh.
I put the cow back in the chute and gave Tubby another lesson. It was clear that I'd have to put the pair in a small pen and let proximity work its magic. The east corral was just too big for proper re-bonding. Tubby was considerably more persistent in nursing than he'd been in the morning, which was a good sign. And two meals of his real mom's milk would begin to change his scent to something she would more easily accept.
When he finished I put the pair into the small pen and left them alone.
When I checked in the morning the re-bonding seemed to be taking place. I let the pair out of the small pen and watched them for a while. Tubby seemed to be a bit indecisive, looking at me, then his mom, than back at me, seemingly trying to figure out the solution to his dilemma. Finally he turned to his real mom and began nursing. Bingo.
I opened the gates but left the pair to their own devices in the corral. When they were ready they'd find the open gates and make their way back to the herd.
I spent the balance of the morning tagging new baby calves. When I finished several hours later I noticed that Tubby and his mom had rejoined the herd.
|Back home, home on the range.|
Just another day of wonder on the EJE Ranch.