Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Christmas Calves

Over the years we’ve had many Christmas visitors here at the ranch, and the most memorable were baby calves. The first calf that came into our house was a little Hereford heifer we named Merry Christmas Muggins (Merry Muggins for short), in 1969. We had recently purchased a group of purebred Hereford cows at a herd reduction sale at the neighboring Pine Creek Ranch, and some of them were bred to calve early. One young cow, which we nicknamed Grendel, started calving the afternoon before Christmas.

I don’t have any photos of dear old Grendel that I could find, so here is
a photo of one of her bull calves as a weanling. This is Hrothgar, 
of Merry Muggins’s little brothers, and he grew up to be a very nice bull.

We put her in the pen next to our front yard, so we could watch her and make sure everything went okay. By the time she actually calved, it was nearly dark, and the temperature was swiftly dropping. The little wet calf would soon have frozen ears and tail.

My husband Lynn carried the calf into the house so we could dry her with towels in the kitchen next to the woodstove. Her mama was very upset about our calf snitching and tried to follow out the gate. I slammed the gate in her face and helped Lynn get the calf into the house.

Grendel watched us from the calving pen, then stood looking toward the living room window, where she could see our activity within — since the kitchen was merely an extension of the living room. I kept an eye on the window and watched the angry mama pacing the fence as I vigorously rubbed her baby with towels.

At that time the yard fence was not very tall; when we moved here in 1967, it was more decorative than functional. The next thing I knew, Grendel had jumped over the fence and was peering in the window, preparing to crash through it and come get her calf. I yelled at Lynn, and we both ran outside to head her off before we had a huge unwanted visitor! I didn’t want to imagine the chaos she’d create if she came into the house!

We moved her into another pen, finished drying Merry Muggins, then took the baby back out to Mama. We finished our Christmas Eve preparations, hung a Christmas stocking for our infant son, and were thankful that we still had a living room and a Christmas tree and were not cleaning up after an angry cow.

A side note about Grendel: She was ordinarily a very placid cow, except when protecting her babies. She had an interesting habit of sitting on her haunches like a big dog when she’d get up from a nap; she’d start to get up, then just sit there a moment chewing her cud. She was lazy and slow when we moved cattle but also very dependable. If the herd had to climb a steep hill, she simply paced herself instead of quitting — methodically hiking up the hill one small step at a time. She was never mean or aggressively threatening, but if you messed with her calf, she was right there in your face and might walk on top of you. One spring when we had to treat her calf for scours, we grabbed him and put him into the back of our jeep to haul him in from the field for doctoring. Immediately, Grendel tried to get in there, too, and put her front feet up into the back of the jeep.

She was truly a character, and her other calves had interesting names, such as Beowulf, Hrothgar, Heathcliff, Hrethel, Halga, Grendelynn, and so on. Merry Muggins was probably the only one with a somewhat conventional name, because of her Christmastime birth.

The next memorable Christmas calf wasn’t just a brief visitor. He lived in our house for several weeks. He was born prematurely and was too small and frail to live outdoors.

That December, in 1977, our cows were still grazing our 320-acre mountain pasture. We hadn’t brought them down to the main ranch yet for calving. The first calves were due in early January. For more than 30 years we calved in January, to have the cows bred again before they went to summer Bureau of Land Management (BLM) range in May.

Calving season is a dilemma for ranchers who have to use public range. If you calve in late spring or early summer, the cows are up in the mountains by then and more difficult to check on, with more risk for predators killing baby calves. It’s also difficult to get the cows bred in a timely fashion in that big, steep country; it takes more bulls and results in a more strung-out calving because the bulls don’t always find all the cows at the proper time. So we calved in January to have the cows all bred in April, at home, to our own bulls.

With the cows due to start calving the first week in January, many years we had early arrivals in late December or even on Christmas. But the calf who lived in our house over Christmas was born in mid-December, just before we brought the cows down from the 320-acre mountain pasture. I found him when I rode up to the far corner to start gathering cows on the snow-covered hillside above the timbered creek. A big coyote was watching the new calf, but his mama was watching the coyote.

The calf had managed to get up, and Mama had licked him dry, but he was so tiny he could walk right under her belly. I thought about trying to put him over my saddle to get him down out of the mountains, but the young horse I was riding was not ready for such a novel passenger. I chased the coyote away and rode to the other side of the mountain to find Lynn, who was driving the jeep and calling cows down off the hillsides. I told him about the calf, so he drove as far as he could up the little creek, then hiked the rest of the way up the canyon and carried the calf down to the jeep.

The kids were home from school by the time we brought the cows down, and they named the calf Rudolph because of his red frostbitten nose. Rudolph was chilled and showing signs of pneumonia, so he had to stay indoors. He lived in our daughter’s old crib in the kitchen for several weeks, fed with a bottle.

Here is Rudolph, in our daughter Andrea’s old crib.

By Christmastime he was healthy and lively, and we let him out of the crib several times a day for exercise. He loved running and bucking around the living room and trying to butt heads with the kids. He especially liked the Christmas tree and was fascinated by the shiny ornaments; we had to make sure he didn’t get too close and personal with the tree. It was a fun Christmas with Rudolph helping us enjoy it. We’ve had other calves in the house at Christmastime, but Rudolph was definitely the most fun.

Boom Boom was another premature calf who got to live in our house for several weeks. In this photo he is nearly ready to live outside,
but he is 
enjoying his exercise in our living room, just before Christmas.

We had plenty of New Year’s babies as well — but the one I remember most was Quicksie’s calf, who kept us home from a nice dinner with friends. Just before we left home to drive to their ranch, Lynn made one last hike with a flashlight through the soon-to-be calving cows in the field below our house. He discovered that Quicksie had calved down by the creek on the ice — and her new baby was freezing. So we called our friends to tell them we couldn’t make it to dinner and spent New Year’s Eve drying that calf in the house instead of eating roast goose.

I guess our cattle always came first; they own us rather than the other way around. But it’s been a great life, and I am thankful for having had the opportunity to be a caretaker of cows.

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 HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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