Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — A Tale of a Determined Hereford Calf, Part 1: Finding George

This is George in the summer of his yearling year, 
after his incredible survival — against seemingly insurmountable odds. 

The first time I saw the calf that we later named George was on a hot September day in 1971 when I was riding range — on the high part of our cattle range — looking for some of our cows that were still missing after our roundup that fall. I saw the lone calf by accident. I had already checked that area and found nothing but a few of our neighbor’s cows; I was just riding up the creek bottom through the thick brush, making one last look, on impulse.

George was lying in the bushes beside the creek. He was at least a quarter of a mile from any other cattle, which meant he was probably sick or lame. I rode closer, to get a better look at him. We were missing a big steer calf about his size, but ours wasn’t so dark red. When I got closer, I could see that this calf was sick.

His rectum was prolapsed and bloody, but he was alert and watched me intently as I got off my horse and came through the bushes to get a closer look to try to tell whose calf it was. All of our calves had big blue ear tags, and all the calves belonging to the family who ran cattle on our range with us had red ear tags that year. This calf lying in the bushes had no ear tag, and I couldn’t see a brand on his near side.

The calf didn’t get up as I approached, so I went around behind him to check for a brand on the other side. At that instant he leaped up and charged at me. I felt rather silly being hustled through the brush by a big calf hitting me in the backside. I yelled and swatted at him as I ran. He pushed me partway up a steep bank, then stopped.

I hadn’t been able to see a brand, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t one of our calves, and there was no torn ear to indicate a lost ear tag. I didn’t know whom he belonged to, but he needed medical attention. He was a 400-pound Hereford calf, and I didn’t want to leave him lying there to die — but I wasn’t about to do any more brand checking up close on foot by myself.

So I got back on my horse and hurried home, about 7 miles down the creek. My husband Lynn was baling hay, and I rode out to the field to tell him about the sick calf. We decided we should find out who it belonged to and either bring the calf home for them or tell them about it so they could go get it and treat it. The calf probably had coccidiosis. A prolapsed rectum can be one of the aftereffects from the severe diarrhea and constant irritation and straining.

It was dusk by then but not dark yet, so Lynn stopped baling and we went bouncing up the creek in our old Jeep. We took Harold Cox with us, the high school boy who was helping us that year with the haying.  

We found the calf lying in the brush along the creek, about 100 yards downstream from where I’d seen him last. I warned the guys that this calf was kind of crazy and to be careful in case he charged at them, but they thought I was being overly concerned.

Lynn had a rope, and we cautiously approached the sick calf. Swifter than an eye blink, the calf jumped up and whammed into Harold (but didn’t hurt him), then turned and ran up the creek a little ways. We followed, Lynn with his rope ready.

The calf charged at Lynn but stopped just out of range of the rope. They stood facing each other — a stare down — for several minutes. Lynn was prepared to drop the loop over the calf’s head if he charged. But the calf thought better of it and ran on up the creek. This time we had no luck finding him again, let alone catching him, and it was starting to get dark. We gave up and drove home, still not knowing whose calf it was.

The next day I rode through that area again and found the rest of our cattle that we were missing, including the steer calf I was looking for, so I knew for certain that George was not ours. I saw George again, partway up a sagebrush-covered draw. But he was in bad shape, much worse than how he had looked the evening before.

It was a hot day, and he lay there severely dehydrated and gasping for breath. His respiration was shallow and three times the normal rate. He tried to get up but was only able to stagger and wobble a few steps. He was very weak. The pained look in his eyes showed the misery he felt. My guess was that he would not live through the night. I looked him over as closely as I could but still couldn’t see a brand; I didn’t get off my horse this time.

My parents were here at the ranch for a few days, so the next day my father rode with me to gather the rest of our neighbor’s cattle for him, and we went through that same area. There stood George, a little farther up the draw, still alive, and actually on his feet. It was a cooler day, and this probably helped him.  Dad and I gently herded George along with the rest of the cattle we were bringing home. He staggered, stumbled, and wobbled down the hill. We took him about 2 miles with the herd, then left him above a range drift fence by the creek when we took the cattle on down through the gate. He was so weak and exhausted that we figured he wouldn’t make it the 5 more miles down to the ranch.

When we got home, I telephoned the man who ran cattle on the Forest Service range pasture above and adjoining our BLM allotment. He seemed to be the most likely owner of the calf. A sick calf, too weak to keep up with the herd or to climb the mountains would tend to drift downhill and could easily have come through the fence, ending up on our range. I told the man about the calf, the condition he was in, and exactly where we left him, right above the range gate. He told me he would try to drive up there and take a look. I assumed this was the end of our involvement with the sick calf, but our adventure was just beginning.

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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