Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Quicksie

About 30 years ago we had a cow named Quicksie. She had a different name when she was a calf, but after she grew up and started having calves of her own, our young daughter nicknamed her Quicksie because she gave birth to her calves so swiftly, and the name stuck. Quicksie never gave much warning about when she was going to have her calves; she just popped them out.

Quicksie always calved very swiftly, popping her calf out without much prior clue that she was in labor.

Most of our cows show some clues that they’re in labor. They walk around nervously, switch their tails, or kick at their bellies — they show signs of discomfort. They may get up and down repeatedly. But Quicksie often fooled us. We might walk through the herd of pregnant cows at night to check on them, and Quicksie would be lying there contentedly chewing her cud, with no hint of labor pains. Thirty minutes later we might look out the window at the “maternity ward” pen under the yard light, and there she’d be, standing up, licking her new calf.

It’s perfectly fine if a cow gives no clues about labor if it’s warm outside and everything goes properly. But if there’s any problem, it’s hard to know about it in time. If it’s subzero, the calf might freeze to death before we find it. That’s what nearly happened one cold winter night.

It was New Year’s Eve, and some ranching friends had invited us to dinner at their house. We’d planned to go, since very few of our cows were calving yet. At that point in time, we were calving our cows during January (in order to have them all calved and rebred before going to summer range in May), with the first ones due to start calving about January 5.

Quicksie and her first calf

While we were feeding the cows their evening hay, hurrying to get all our chores done and the cows fed in time to go to our friends’ place for dinner, we discovered that Quicksie had calved down in the lower field, on the ice next to the creek. The temperature that night was well below zero, and the calf was nearly frozen. We telephoned our friends to say we couldn’t come to dinner; we were busy thawing out the new calf in the bathtub (with warm water) and drying it by the kitchen stove.

Quicksie and the calf that was born on the ice, a few days after we thawed him out.
Here he is bucking around in the field near his mama.

A few years later Quicksie had a big steer that died of pneumonia when he was about a month old. Since Quicksie was such a placid, gentle cow, we thought we might be able to convince her to adopt another calf in place of the one she lost. We had a heifer calf, three weeks old, that we’d been feeding with a bottle. Her first-time mother had refused to love her. We had tried for a week to change her mind, supervising at nursing time. But in spite of being hobbled so she couldn’t kick the calf, that stubborn mama always tried to kill her calf whenever we put them together. So we’d sold the young cow and were raising the calf on a bottle.

Quicksie didn’t like the idea of an adopted calf, but she wasn’t as mean. At first we had to keep them in separate stalls in the barn, putting them together twice a day for nursing. If we gave Quicksie some alfalfa hay (which she loved) and stood there with a long stick — to block her movement if she tried to walk away from the calf and to remind her not to kick it — she’d let the little heifer suckle while she gobbled the hay.

This compromise worked; after a few days Quicksie became more tolerant of the newcomer and let it nurse without kicking. Quicksie eventually came to love little Swifty as much as if the baby were her own. By the time we put the cattle on summer pasture in the mountains, Quicksie and Swifty had thoroughly adopted one another.

Moving Quicksie and her adopted calf (and another pair) out to the field from the barn,
after Quicksie finally accepted her adopted child

A couple of years later, Quicksie got herself into a very serious predicament. We drove down into our lower fields one spring morning to feed the cow, and I looked at them to make sure all the cows and calves were there and that none of the calves was sick. I usually count them or mark them off in a little notebook I carry in my pocket. I had lists of all the cows and calves in the various fields. That way, if any are missing from the herd — off in the bushes or across the creek — I can go look for them and find out if they have a problem.

That morning Quicksie was missing. Her calf was with the herd but not Quicksie. I hiked around the field, looking through the bushes along the edges. When I went around a big thicket, I saw her standing in the trees. Strange. Why hadn’t she come up with the other cows to eat the hay we were feeding?

When I walked closer, I discovered that her head was caught between two trees. Noting the piles of manure behind her, I realized she must have been there all night. Her calf had apparently been with her — until he went with the other cattle to meet the feed truck — because her udder was completely nursed out.

The two trees were very close together. Her neck was between them and her head was too big to pull out. The only way she could have gotten her head stuck was to put it between the trees near the ground; the trees were a little farther apart down by their roots. She must have been rubbing her head or neck on the trees, as cows often do when shedding their long winter hair. She probably rubbed her neck between the trees, then raised her head and was stuck.

She’d probably tried to pull back and couldn’t get free, since her head was too big to come out at normal standing height. She’d given up trying. Cows don’t use logical reasoning, and she couldn’t understand that the only way to get unstuck was to lower her head down to ground level again, where there was more room to pull free.

I tried to push on her head to make her lower it, but that only upset her, and she fought against my pushing. She was much stronger than I was. It looked like we might have to saw down one of the big trees to rescue her.

I hiked back to the feed truck where my husband Lynn and young son Michael were finishing feeding and told them about Quicksie’s problem. We drove down to the trees, and the three of us tried to push Quicksie’s head low enough to get her free. No luck. The trees were a little farther apart higher up, so we then tried to make Quicksie stand on some tree limbs that we gathered and put under her front feet, but we couldn’t get her head quite high enough to get out.

We were afraid to saw down one of the trees, fearing it might fall on her. Both trees were large, and it would be difficult to saw one down without frightening or hurting her, since it would require using a chain saw. There had to be a better way. She was very patient with all our efforts, but we weren’t making any progress.

Finally, we decided to try a pulley, to pull the trees apart a couple of inches, just enough to get her head out. Lynn drove back to the barn to get our fence stretcher. We hooked one end to the base of a strong tree a few yards away and hooked the other end to the smallest tree by Quicksie’s head, the tree that looked the weakest and most likely to bend. It was only about 18 inches thick. The other one was more than 2 feet thick.

When we started winching, the tree started to creak. Lynn kept winching. Soon we could tell that the tree was moving a little. Would it bend enough, or would our cable break? At last we had the tree pulled a few inches from its original position, barely enough for Quicksie’s head to come through. I got in front of her and pushed on her head to make her back up. She didn’t want to move. She’d probably spent a lot of energy earlier, pulling and trying to get free, and it hadn’t worked. I finally had to poke her nose and make her angry, and then she finally pulled backward and was free.

She stood there a moment, looking surprised, hardly believing that she was free at last. Then she shook her head and blew snot out of her nose angrily, as if to blame us for all her troubles, and went trotting off to find the rest of the herd and some hay to eat.

We’ve had cows stuck in ditches and gullies, and one time a cow on the range got her hind foot caught in a trapper’s coyote snare (which was secured to a fence) and was stuck there for a couple of days till we found her, but this was the first time we’d ever had one get caught between two trees!

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.

1 comment:

sista said...

I guess if Quicksie is so quick to calf wouldn't you put her in a big birthing stall or at least a small paddock near the house?