Tuesday, March 20, 2012

For Elsie

It's interesting how the human brain reacts to impending tragedy. First, you think the worst - 'she won't survive the night, she'll be gone by morning'. Then, hope - 'she survived the night and looks good this morning! Maybe she just needed to take a little extra time to recover from such a horrifically difficult delivery.' Then, the always balloon-bursting reality check - 'she's not going to make it. Things really ARE as bad as they first appeared.' And finally, the crash comes, and it comes hard.

Me and my fellow cattle ranchers were once painted by a person of limited knowledge as 'greedy, heartless people who only see dollar signs when they look out on their cows, who are unceremoniously dumped into pastures and ignored, and used only to generate money until they can't produce anymore.' We had to 'repossess' a heifer from these people a while ago, after giving them an incredibly generous deal on a very fine, purebred, registered heifer calf to help them get started in cattle. Yes, I could have sold that same heifer calf for over twice what I sold her to this couple for, and had buyers lined up to do so. But it wasn't about the money; it was the idea that I could help these people start their own herd, much the same way Bonnie of JB Ranch Murray Greys (http://www.jbranchmurraygreys.com/) worked with us to help us get started. If those people could see how Sharon works her cows - and she is a commercial producer running a LOT of cattle here in the Bellfountain area - with a quiet voice, respect and compassion; if they could talk with Don about Ugly, one of his prettiest cows (to me, anyway), who comes running up to him to get petted and rubbed; if they could see so many other cattlemen and women working to save the life of a momma cow or calf, not just because the loss represents a financial loss but the loss of a living, breathing entity - then they might just understand why I sat there yesterday morning with a cold, lifeless head in my lap and bawled my eyes out. And why I'm crying right now, typing this. To be sure, there are a few cattle producers out there to whom live animals are just a number, who are too far removed from the guts and grit of cattle ranching to feel anything for their charges, but I don't know any of them, and nor do I care to. So, here is Elsie's short story.

Dawn (JB Roar X JB Romance Rose) was bred to Tali (Morgan Rivers Talisman) last year at Tali's bachelor pad out in Crow. She visited him with her pal Sapphire (Roar X JB Moonstruck) last summer. Both are first timers. Dawn was due next weekend, or so I thought. I kept looking at her, especially after Misty calved on Thursday night. She just looked so big and so ready to calve, and being a heifer, could go either way. She could calve early - usually a good thing - but mostly likely, she could calve late, meaning she was bred 3 weeks earlier than she was thought to have been, not a good thing. She chose the latter option.

Saturday evening, I was feeding the dogs out in the run. I had a clear view of the barn, where Dawn and Sapphire were hanging out. That's when I saw the water bag hanging down behind Dawn's butt. She didn't look concerned yet - that's a heifer for you, not usually too smart about their first calving, but I got the dogs fed, then went to get a closer look. Since the weather was threatening rain and snow, I felt that her first time should be in the barn where Misty had calved two days before, so I shooed her in and close the door. Then came the waiting game. About an hour later, the calf sac appeared at the exit, and I started the timer. I knew that her mom's first calf was a very difficult, hard pull, but I hoped for a fairly easy time for Dawn. Tali is a low-birthweight bull, and most of his calves have come easy and light, even for first timers.

Dawn kept going down and pushing hard. Dale came out about an hour into things, and I was getting nervous. I hadn't seen anything appear in the sac yet, and there should have at least been feet. That is the critical point in calving, the first appearance of the feet, because that is when you get a good idea of how things are going to go. Soles up and toes pointed down means breech baby, which means a doubly hard pull and the need to get the calf out immediately is of the utmost importance. Proper presentation - soles down, toes pointed up - a good sign if the feet are of reasonable size. The appearance of only one foot could mean a leg back, which means you need to go fishing for the other leg, otherwise you won't get the calf out without possibly breaking the leg that's back, and the delivery is doubly difficult for the momma. You might have to push the poor calf back in to get that other leg out and positioned properly, but things should go smoothly from that point forward.

Finally, we thought we saw feet appear. It was hard to tell thru the sac if they were of reasonable size and pointed properly, but I figured that okay, things should go better now. Probably a tight squeeze - heifers tend to be thus - but at least the legs were thru and there appeared to be two feet. But I had called the calvary, just in case, and they were on call if needed.

30 minutes later, I could tell things just weren't going anywhere and that Dawn was really starting to get tired, so I called the calvary back. They arrived with their puller - sometimes called a calf jack - and after some discussion, we finally got Dawn into the lambing pen, haltered and tied to a post. The sac was cut, and that's when the trouble started. Those feet were indeed in the correct position - but they were HUGE. There was also a nose, with a blackened, slightly swollen tongue protruding. And then the nightmare began. It took four of us over an hour to finally free the 112 pound dun heifer calf, but she was alive. Mom was down hard, and it took quite awhile for her to get up. In the meantime, we'd tubed 2 quarts of warmed up colostrum (first milk, this one from a package instead of mom) into the calf and positioned her so that mom could do her mom thing. That was kind of a tall order for a first time, over-stressed mom, who took no notice of her new daughter. We rubbed Elsie and tickled her nose to make her sneeze out the birth fluids and tried to get mom to mother up, but mom was having no part of things at the moment. We finally decided that since daughter had a full belly to just leave them alone to figure things out. Heifers are like that, and after such a hard delivery, she just needed time to relax and bond to Elsie.

Dale and I checked on the pair all night, not really expecting Elsie to survive, but by first light, there was a perky, huge dun heifer calf lying in the straw, watching everything around her. She kept trying to get up, but her back legs didn't appear to be working very well, if at all. We figured it was still just the birth trauma, and I tubed her a few more times during the day and night. Dawn showed some interest in her new daughter by now, lying close to her and getting antsy when I was with her feeding her and moving her legs to help her out. Don came by in the afternoon, and while he and Dale were watching me tube her, Dale noticed a somewhat funny look to her back. And if you're squeamish at all, stop reading here. Don had accidently stood on her tail and she definitely felt that, and she'd pooped a coupla times, so I figured that things must be okay with her spine and spinal cord, but now here was something that just made my heart drop - there was a definite 'drop' in her spine, from the last rib back. Rubbing a finger along her spine, I felt a very sharp drop off of at least 1/2", maybe more. This could not be good, not at all. My brain felt for an option, any option, other than the obvious. Maybe it was just dislocated? It couldn't possibly be broken, as her tail and bowels still worked, right? The decision was made to have OSU out first thing Monday. Surely, Dr. V would just say yeah, it's just dislocated, we'll put her in traction, the ligaments will repair themselves and all will be well. I was sure she would say that.

By Monday morning, she wasn't nearly as perky, and mom was a little more agitated. I went to tube her breakfast, and she felt uncommonly warm to the touch. One thing about prolonged births, the danger of the calf inhaling birth fluids and succumbing to aspiration pneumonia is very high. Plus, the same danger exists with tubing - unless all the fluid goes out of the tube, pulling it out after feeding runs the same risk of the calf inhaling fluid as the tube passes the lungs. Elsie wasn't thrilled about the tube this morning, whereas before she swallowed the tube eagerly. Afterwards, I sat in the hay and pulled her head into my lap, just stroking her gently. Dr. V was due in about an hour, and overnight, thinking things over, I think I already knew how this was going to end up. In effect, I was saying goodbye to a sweet girl who had only existed on this earth for a day and a half, and who's death was going to be entirely my fault, not hers. I don't think she was in any pain, but she sure wasn't right this morning. I called Donna and asked if Don and his backhoe were available this morning, and she said he'd be over shortly.

I went back to feed the dogs. Dawn started a different mooing than I'd heard from her since Saturday night, an almost mournful lowing, very quiet but constant. The dogs finished up and I went back out. The moment I opened the barn door, I knew she was gone. Dawn lay next to Elsie and didn't move, even when I picked up Elsie's head and felt the warmth draining out of her nose and mouth, saw the unresponsive eyes. I dropped to the hay, pulled her head into my lap one last time, and bawled until I heard Don's tractor on the road.

Dr. V and her students confirmed via autopsy right there that her spine was completely broken and the cord nearly severed. She would have never gotten up. Dr. V explained that she just flat hated calf jacks, and that in this case, an emergency C-section would have saved Elsie. Knowledge is sometimes hard-gained. She took many shots with her camera so she could post pictures showing how badly a delivery via a calf jack could go wrong. This was our second time ever using one; the first one turned out just fine. But for Elsie, it didn't. Maybe a rancher will see those pictures and choose a different path to save a calf. If so, I think Elsie would be pleased.

Don and I raced to get Elsie buried out in the south pasture, Dale hooked up the trailer to Really Big Red, and Don and I went to Barb's to pick up a two day old dairy calf named Scooby to graft onto Dawn. It's taking some time, but he has been on her twice now, and hopefully she'll soon see him as her own, and she can get on with being a first time mother cow to a goofy, gangly calf. And this time, if Sapphire shows so much as a single large foot, I'm on the phone to Dr. V for a C-section.

A lesson learned can be heartbreaking. Cattle ranching isn't always pretty like it is in the movies; there's blood and dirt and mud and tears. But in the end, we always hope there is a goofy, gangly newborn suckling his or her contented momma cow that we can take a lot of pictures of and proudly show off to everyone. And sometimes, it doesn't happen. That's when us greedy, heartless, dollar-grubbing cattlemen and women sit our exhausted, dirty, bloody butts down besides a small, cold body and bawl our eyes out. For the loss of life, not the loss of a dollar.

Elsie, 8 hours old

Scooby grabs a meal from a reluctant Dawn



  1. So sad to hear about little Elsie. I'm so sorry.

  2. Thanks for writing the story of Elsie. The lesson learned was indeed hard and I hope you never have to experience it again.