Baby Doll, 9 years old, ready to have her eighth bull calf, which we named Epamanondus, or "Epam" for short. He came backward, and we had to pull him.
Baby Doll, the Holstein cow that Lynn and I bought as a 2-year-old soon after we were married, was truly a family cow; she was part of our kids’ lives through all their growing-up years. She was a mellow 4-year-old by the time our son Michael was born and kept us supplied with milk until he finished high school. Most high-producing Holstein dairy cows don’t last very long in a dairy and are usually culled and sold by the time they are 7 or 8 years old. In contrast, Baby Doll stayed on our ranch until she was almost 22.
Big John was the sire of several of Baby Doll's bull calves.
She had some advantages over most milk cows, however. Being a family milk cow, she gave more milk than we actually needed, so she was not “pushed” for maximum production. She thrived on pasture and a little grain at milking time and therefore didn’t “burn out” and break down at a young age like most dairy cows. She had exceptionally good conformation—correct, sound feet and legs--and good udder structure. Most milk cows’ udders break down and get saggy as they get older, but not hers. She still had a good udder when she was past 20 years old.
Dionysious, pictured here at 2 weeks old, was the second bull that we kept from Baby Doll.
She was such a good cow that we’d always hoped to raise a daughter from her to be our next milk cow, but her first 10 calves were all bulls. For most of those calves, we’d bred her to a good Hereford bull we called Big John, and the crossbred steers were exceptionally good calves. Big John was an outstanding individual with good conformation and a good disposition, and we kept him until he was 10 years old—a tribute to his soundness and longevity, since most bulls have to be culled at an earlier age.
Since Baby Doll hadn’t had any heifers, we finally we kept one of her bull calves for a crossbreeding experiment; we kept him for a bull and bred him to some of our crossbred Hereford-Angus cows. The results of that three-way cross (½ Hereford, ¼ Angus, ¼ Holstein) were outstanding and very uniform in conformation and color, being solid red or black (not spotted) with white faces. They had plenty of muscling, and you couldn’t really tell they had any “dairy” in them.
Baby Doll at age 13
The heifers were so good that we kept them as future cows, and the steers were bigger than average at sale time. Calves from the three-way-cross cows were only 1/8 Holstein, so the dairy blood didn’t “show” in their physical characteristics, but they were always big, well-structured beef calves—better than any other beef calves we’d ever raised. Their crossbred mamas gave a little more milk than beef cows and thus raised bigger calves, but they had good well-formed udders that didn’t break down. Eventually we kept four bull calves from Baby Doll and Big John, and we used those bulls to start the creation of our own “composite” beef herd—with exceptional hybrid vigor due to a blend of beef breeds with a little dash of Holstein.
Meanwhile, Baby Doll just kept going, having a calf every year, except for one year when she didn’t show much sign of pregnancy. About the time we thought it was time to dry her up in preparation for her next calving, we began to wonder if she really was pregnant or not, so we had our vet come check her. He found a tiny mummified calf inside her, which explained why she hadn’t returned to heat and we’d assumed she was pregnant. The fetus had died at about 4 months’ gestation but for some reason was not aborted. It just stayed there and became shriveled and dehydrated. Our vet gave Baby Doll an injection of hormones to induce labor and get rid of the mummy, after which she was able to return to heat in a few weeks and became pregnant again. We simply kept milking her until it was time to dry her up for the next calf.
Our 7-year-old daughter Andrea with Liza, Baby Doll's first heifer calf, born when Baby Doll was 13 years old
After her long string of bull calves, she finally had a heifer, which we named Liza. She gave birth to Liza on June 2, 1977, when she was 13 years old and our daughter Andrea was 7 years old. Big John was gone by then, and we’d bred Baby Doll to one of his sons, named Joe. Liza wasn’t quite as calm and mellow as her mother, but she did become a milk cow after a few years of raising extra calves, and Andrea was the one in our family who had the most patience to milk her.
Baby Doll and her 2-year-old daughter, Liza
Baby Doll kept going a long time, even after she became infertile. We milked her for four years in her late teens without her having a calf. She didn’t give as much milk as she had earlier, but we never dried her up (because she wasn’t pregnant again) and just kept milking her.
Lynn milking 18-year-old Baby Doll
Then in December 1980, one of our bulls went through a fence and into her pasture and was with her a while. We never saw her bred, and we didn’t think much of it because she’d been with a bull for several years before that and didn’t become pregnant. But eight months later her milk suddenly started tasting “funny” and we realized that she WAS pregnant and getting ready to have another calf! We dried her up so she’d have a few weeks’ rest from milking, and on September 12, 1981, she gave birth to a little heifer we named Megan—and we were soon calling her Meggy. After having this calf, Baby Doll’s milk production increased again, and we kept milking her for several more years, until she was past 21 years old.
Andrea (age 11) with Baby Doll's final calf, Meggy
In the summer of 1985, Baby Doll's hip joints began to wear out. She did fine as long as she lay down on her left side, but if she happened to lie on her right side she was unable to get up. Several times when we went out to do chores in the morning we found her lying on her right side, and it took all four of us to roll her over to her good side so she could get up. She didn’t seem to be in pain, however, once she was able to get up. But as the summer went on, she started to have trouble getting up from her good side.
Baby Doll at age 20
Finally the day came to make the dreaded decision, because she was no longer very comfortable. We milked her one last time and mercifully ended her life. We thought about burying her and putting up a headstone, but we also knew that this special cow would live forever in our hearts and memories without that kind of reminder. Being frugal (one reason we’d been able to survive in ranching), we couldn’t in good conscience let that much meat go to waste, so we butchered her. Even in old age and declining body condition she weighed about 1600 pounds. So she supplied us with a couple of years’ worth of hamburger and hence became a part of us. She was truly a one-of-a-kind family milk cow. Not only will she always be remembered, but she’s probably the only Holstein in the world that served as a cornerstone for a whole herd of beef cows. Almost every cow on our ranch, the past 35 years, was or is a descendant of that grand old cow, via her exceptional crossbred sons. Long live Baby Doll!
Baby Doll at age 21 1/2 -- her last summer -- shown here with one of our cats who is waiting for milking time and a handout.
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 her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.