Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Circle of life

I find that grass scouting on foot can be a very enjoyable way to spend time. Monday I hiked out across parts of the ranch where we are running cattle, as well as adjacent areas where we plan to move the herd for calving.

As I strode across a drab and, to the cursory glance, barren prairie, I could just begin to feel the first inklings of spring. Temperatures have been creeping up for a couple of weeks and bright sunshine has both melted the recent snow and begun to warm the ground, slowly releasing winter’s frosty grasp.

The warming air was still coolish. Monday was, after all, only March 14. Yet the breeze was no longer blowing across snow cover, and as the day wore on, the temperature climbed steadily into the low 60’s. I did the math in my head, and deduced that it was the first day of the last week of calendar Winter. By the time many of you read this note, calendar Spring will have arrived.

A week ago the air, though warm at times, smelled sterile and lifeless. There were a few hardy insects out and about in the warmer afternoons, but it was still clearly winter. A fading winter, but nonetheless still winter.

On Monday the coolish air felt and smelled different. There was a strong touch of a muddy, earthy, growing smell in the air. The southwest wind carried the mating song of Western Meadowlark, the first of the season.

Golden-green leaves of crested wheatgrass
Underfoot, the first golden leaves of early grass were making their appearance. So far there was crested wheatgrass, smooth and downy brome, and thread- and needle-leaf sedge. There wasn’t a lot of it; the few tiny golden-green leaves I saw were the first to emerge. The cattle were finding them, though, and I marveled once again at their ability to find and harvest the most delectable and nutritious morsels of browse as they move across the vast and quickening prairiescape.

There will still be snow and frost and hard freezes. Across the south Panhandle the average last day of frost falls sometime in mid-May. But the birdsong, the insects, the smell of warm and fertile soil, and the new golden-green shoots of grass point to the annual rebirth of life across the region. These things put a spring in my step.

A young bull crops new grass
As I hiked along on Monday and meandered through the cow herd, I counted and looked the animals over. Many are beginning to spread in the rear as birth canal ligaments begin to loosen. Most were beginning to “make bag” as their udders swelled with development. They were all obviously far along in their pregnancies, roly-poly fat with calves. They were intent on grazing and on feasting on the new, greening grass. The sun was warm but the breeze cool, and to my eye, the cows seemed content. The youngest cows, still technically heifers, did a bit of pushing and chasing. The bulls, aloof and apart from the rest of the herd, placidly grazed along, heads to the ground.

I finished my inspection and count and came up one cow short. Since I was on the east edge of the pasture, I struck off to the west, knowing I’d likely find the cow off by herself with a new calf. As I hiked along I enjoyed the day, enjoyed the physical exertion, enjoyed watching the prairie wake from her long winter snooze. I topped a rise and spied the missing cow about a half-mile away, just south of a windmill near the slope of an old gravel pit. Sure enough, she was licking off a new calf.

As I drew closer, though, I could see that something wasn’t quite right. The cow was doing more sniffing than licking, and the calf, flat out on its side, didn’t seem to be moving. The cow nervously eyed me as I approached. She would look at me, pace a few steps away, then turn and walk back to the calf, nudging and sniffing.

At fifty or so feet from the pair, I realized that the calf was probably dead. At twenty feet I was certain. The calf was still and motionless, eyes open but glazed and unfocused. As I approached I spoke reassuringly to the cow in a low voice, “easy girl, easy momma, whatcha got here girl?”

The calf was a pretty little red heifer, brockle-faced just like the cow. Looking a the still little form, she seemed a near-perfect miniature of the cow. As I eased closer, the cow was clearly excited by my proximity, instinct and hormones telling her to protect her baby. But her excitement was only half-hearted, as if she knew that something was badly wrong.

I leaned over and placed my hand on the calf’s side, feeling for movement, for heartbeat, for breathing, even though I knew those things wouldn’t be there. The calf was dry and still warm; she must have expired only minutes before I arrived. The cow sniffed my hand, licked the calf a few more times, gave my arm a half-hearted shove with her nose, then took a few steps back and watched.

I sat down on the cool, newly growing prairie next to the calf and did the mental gymnastics of coming to terms with the death of a calf, the death of the first calf of the season.

I was saddened by the fundamental loss of the calf. She seemed pretty and well formed. She was a bit on the small side, only 60 pounds or so, but that was to be expected with an early birth. Still, there must have been some kind of fatal defect. An otherwise healthy, albeit early, calf would have long since been up and about. The sadness I felt was for the life the calf wouldn’t live. No long summer of growth and play and calf-socialization. But nature knows best.

I also thought about the economic impact of a dead calf. This one, had she lived, would probably have made a fine replacement heifer. She had the right genetics, anyway. But even if not a replacement heifer, she would still likely have brought $700-$800 in the late fall. Perhaps more. As they say, you can’t sell a dead calf.

As I hiked away I felt bad about the dead calf. It’s fair to say that I grieve when I lose an animal. Doesn’t seem tough, macho, or manly, but there it is. But I also understand how nature works, and I understand the fundamental nature of the business I’m engaged in. I grieve, but I work through it. I’m fortunate that I’m not a purely emotional being. I know many of those, and I feel bad for them.

I’m fortunate – blessed, really – that I grew up on a ranch and learned about the reality of life and death from an early age. The great circle of life has always been a comfort to me. I’m not sure whether a person who is never exposed to life’s harsher realities can reasonably deal with them when they inevitably crop up.

As I trudged across the awaking prairie my heart was filled with the joy of the season and tinged with the sadness of loss. A bittersweet moment, but on the whole, far more sweet than bitter.

A Llama and new cria were as curious about me as I was about them.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry about the loss of the calf. Any twins to make up for it?

    Question: I've worked with cattle before but the ones I worked with were always eating out of feed bins. Do cattle have nearly-prehensile tongues to get the choice bits of new grass out from the dead stuff, or do they just eat it all?

    And what's with the llama? Random!