Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes From Sky Range Ranch — Hornless Fatty's Sled Ride

Hornless Fatty and one of her later calves

My husband and I started ranching in 1967 with Hereford and Angus cows. Some of the Herefords were purebreds with horns. One of them soon became known as Hornless Fatty after we dehorned her. Eventually, we dehorned them all because they were bossy and mean to other members of the herd. Hornless Fatty, however, had the dubious honor of being first.

Without her horns she was a much nicer cow and led a rather placid life producing good calves (Zelda, Fergus, Figaro, to name a few). But one winter she had a serious accident and Figaro — the calf she was carrying at the time — very nearly wasn’t.

Our cattle were on snowed-under winter pasture a couple of miles up the creek from our house, and we were feeding them a few pellets and bales of hay each day. It was mid-December, and they would soon be calving. We calved in January for 35 years, primarily because our cows graze rugged rangeland in summer, where it’s hard to get them bred efficiently. Cattle in our region have a long, drawn-out calving season when breeding in huge mountain pastures where the bulls may not find all the in-heat cows in a timely manner.

Another reason we calved early was that we wanted to breed our cows selectively (with planned matings) to our own bulls, for more genetic improvement. So we bred them during April in several small breeding groups before they went to the range, and they calved in January. Thus we had a high conception rate, knew the sire and dam of every calf, and almost never lost a calf at birth — because in January we put them in the barn to calve (since temperatures could be below zero), and we were there for every birth and could correct any problems that might occur.

Anyway, back to my story. On Hornless Fatty’s rescue day, the kids and I went with Lynn to help feed cows and check on them. Our kids were age 2 and 4 at that time and usually went with us in the old Jeep. I generally check the cows off individually in my little cow book, to make sure they’re all there and that I’ve seen them all, but on this particular day we were in a hurry for some reason that I cannot now recall, and I didn’t mark them off on my list.

I never would have realized Hornless Fatty was missing and in trouble if it hadn’t been for Joan, a cantankerous old black Angus cow. She will always be remembered as the ornery cow who once chased my dog under my horse — only to be kicked in the face by my steadfast cow horse. In all fairness, nasty old Joan must be given credit for saving Hornless Fatty.

Joan was out. She’d crawled through the fence and was grazing on the steep hill above the road where the snow was not quite so deep and grass was sticking up. Leaving the kids in the Jeep, I trudged up the hill to bring her down and chase her back through the open gate while Lynn was feeding pellets. While I was up on the hill, I could see across the trees along the creek.

What I saw made my heart lurch. There was a lone red cow over there, lying down. Something had to be terribly wrong or she would have been with the herd, anticipating the daily handout. I chased Joan down the hill and back into the field and told Lynn about the cow across the creek. We feared she might be calving prematurely — which would be disastrous because weather was cold. We always tried to have the cows down at the main ranch, with its sheds and barns, well ahead of calving time.

Figaro — the calf that almost wasn't

We left the kids in the Jeep and hiked across the creek and through the snow-laden bushes and found Hornless Fatty lying there — not because she was calving but because she couldn’t get up. She’d slipped and fallen on some ice; the ditch above the field had not been shut off completely for winter, and water had been seeping past our dam at the creek. Cold weather had created an ice flow across the end of the sloping field. Hornless Fatty had slid all the way down the hillside; we could see her slithery path, the slide marks down the snow-covered ice. She lay there patiently and didn’t try to get up as we approached, having long since given up struggling.

She’d probably been there on the ice all night; she was cold and shivering, and her splayed-out hind legs were useless. Even when we got her hind legs back underneath her, by tugging and pulling and getting her onto her side in a more comfortable position, it was no use. Her one brief attempt to stand just sent her hind legs out from under her again. We had to get her off the ice, quickly, or she would continue chilling and freeze to death. In a few hours the sun would go down again and temperatures would drop well below zero. We had to get her home and into the barn, but how?

Then Lynn remembered an old hay slip in one of our lower fields. It was a wooden platform on runners (like a raft), once used to drag behind the Jeep to pick up bales of hay to haul to the haystack, when we were putting up hay in the summer. We hadn’t used it in years. If only we could find it, under the snow!

We hurried back across the creek and drove home to search for the hay slip. We finally found it, shoveled off the snow, and used a long metal bar to pry it loose from the frozen ground. We hitched it behind the Jeep, gathered ropes, a halter, and various other things we might need, and headed back up the creek, dragging the old hay slip through the snow behind us. On our way to the upper place, we left the kids with a neighbor because our Jeep had no heater and they’d already been out in the cold long enough for one day.

There wasn’t a good route to the field across the creek where the injured cow was, but our Jeep made it through the deep snow and the bushes and across the creek ice without falling through. Hornless Fatty hardly even blinked as we made a wide circle and pulled up beside her with the hay slip only inches away from her.

After much pushing and pulling (quite a job, to move a 1,200-pound cow), the two of us managed to roll her onto the slip. We were thankful she was placid and calm and didn’t try to resist our efforts. We arranged her hind legs as comfortably under her as we could and tied her to the slip. Lynn had brought a wide, flat pulley belt off our old baler, and we put this around her shoulders like a horse’s breast collar. We tied this belt to the slip in about six places, on all sides, and tied her head to the front of the slip with the halter. Now that she was wrapped up like a Christmas package, we figured she couldn’t fall off the slip on the way home.

We slowly began the journey down the field to the creek crossing. Hornless Fatty looked around in mild surprise as she began gently sliding over the snow on her big sled, with the scenery moving past. Then we came to a problem: The approach to the creek crossing was very slanted. With the empty slip, we’d managed all right. But going back down that slope, with weight on it, we knew the slip would slide too far down the side of the hill and get caught in the thick briars — and might dump Hornless Fatty off as it tipped. So Lynn daringly drove straight off over the brink (rather than sideways), giving the Jeep a burst of speed to make sure the slip wouldn’t overtake the Jeep when it came plunging down after us.

Hornless Fatty had a brief moment of alarm. The slip balanced precariously over the edge for a split second as the front hung over space. Her eyes got big as saucers. Then she and the slip plummeted over the edge, following the roaring Jeep. We made it down to the creek without a wreck and without losing the cow. Hornless Fatty tried once to get up, rising onto her knees, but the baler belt held her securely, and she quickly settled back down.

We got her home and had to figure out a way to get her into a barn. The best option was an old shed with an open side. We pulled her around to the open side, unhooked the slip, and drove the Jeep around behind the shed. Taking off a loose board on the back side, we were able to run a long chain through the wall from the Jeep to the slip. We pulled the slip into the shed, unhooked it, and replaced the board at the back wall.

We rolled her off the slip and onto some straw and arranged her legs to make her comfortable. There was no electricity to that shed, so we rigged a gas heater over her, hung from the ceiling. After several hours under the heater, she began to warm up and quit shaking.

We called our veterinarian and asked how best to take care of her. He told us to let her lie quietly for a couple of days before trying to get her up. Attempting to get her on her feet too soon might do her injured legs (torn muscles, stretched tendons and ligaments) more harm than good.

Following his instructions, we hobbled her hind legs together with a rope, about 12 inches apart, so she couldn’t spraddle her legs out again if she tried to get up. We turned her twice a day by rolling her over, so she wouldn’t be always lying on the same side. Cows can get bedsores from lying always in the same position, just like people do.

We gave her injections of antibiotics to prevent pneumonia. The chances of aborting her unborn calf were great, after all the stress and injury, but she didn’t lose the baby. By the second day she showed interest in food and water. We pampered her with good hay and grain pellets, and she drank from the water tub we left close to her head.

After two days of recuperation, we got her up, with a lot of encouraging, tail pulling, pushing and steadying. The hobbles kept her hind legs from splaying out. She swayed unsteadily for a few moments, panting and grunting from the effort, then collapsed. But this was progress! Some cows that suffer this much damage and hind-leg paralysis never get up again.

Her right hind leg was beginning to swell from the torn muscles. We gave her medication prescribed by our vet to help keep swelling down. By now she was managing to get up and down on her own; we’d find her lying in a different place in the stall or on her other side. It was a week and a half, however, before she was able to stay on her feet very long at a time, and her efforts at walking were very wobbly.

As her calving time approached (she was due to calve on January 13), we were afraid she might need assistance. But she had her calf (a big fellow we named Figaro) without any help from us. Mama was almost as wobbly as Baby, but she managed to lick him and give him his dinner. It wasn’t long before they were able to go out with the other cows and babies.

As winter progressed into spring, Hornless Fatty regained her strength and muscle tone and became more coordinated and less wobbly. She was back to normal by the time the cows went to summer range in May, and she and Figaro went with them. By then it was impossible to tell she’d been crippled. Seeing her happily grazing the mountainsides, with a good calf beside her, gave us a feeling of satisfaction.

This story has a postscript. Thanks to our experience rescuing Hornless Fatty, we knew what to do when another cow (a three-year-old crossbred named Dayo, pregnant with her second calf) fell on the creek ice by the waterhole in one of our lower fields and got similarly stranded, 16 years later. The old hay slip was long gone, but we nailed the side boards of an old cattle truck to a couple of large corral poles to create a “sled” for pulling Dayo home. She wasn’t as placid as Hornless Fatty, however, and protested our efforts.

The sled we made for bringing Dayo home. In the pen behind it,
she's lying on a nice bed of straw after we got her safely home.

The weather wasn’t as cold, and we didn’t have to put her in a barn. We made a thick bed of straw for her in one of our pens, hobbled her hind legs, turned her several times a day, and eventually got her up. She calved later without incident and raised good calves for 12 more years. But unlike mellow Fatty, Dayo never forgave us for the indignities she felt we imposed upon her. She was always aggressively protective when she calved — one of the infamous members of the herd with a bad reputation. We always remembered to take a weapon of some sort when dealing with her or her calf at calving time.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

1 comment:

Ralph Goff said...

What a great story. I've been reading Heather's ranching adventures in Grainews for what must be about 30 years now but don't recall that one.