The Orphan Calf

We raise black angus-cross cattle and maintain a small herd of 25 momma cows. Each one of these cows have been bought by us almost one at a time over the years, and several members of our herd have started out as bottle calves. They each have names and can certainly be classified as pets to our family, we know their personalities, their history and their temperaments very well. In short, we LOVE our cattle.

Another local farmer raises several hundred high-quality angus calves each spring and fall, and it was early March 2013 when we got the call that he had several sets of twins that had been born in the same week. Since cattle will typically reject one of the babies, or have trouble caring for both, standard procedure is to pull one of the twins off the mother to sell as a bottle calf. Knowing that we are always looking to add quality cows to our program and our kids love bottle babies, he called us. 

It was hard to tell who was more excited the day we brought them home, us or the kids. We now had four new black, fuzzy, adorable tiny members of the family, and they were timed perfectly to concide with our cattle calving, which would help when we moved them to the pasture and creep feeder. The first three bottle calves were typical runty newborns that were tame and small and certain we were their mothers. The fourth, however, was another story. She was a calf with big black eyes rimmed with long full eyelashes, a perfect, boxy frame, and a petite head so adorable that you couldn’t look at her without smiling and saying “Aaawwww” to yourself. This calf we immediately dubbed “Dolly”.  

Dolly knew with undeniable certainty that we weren’t her mother, because she was several weeks old and her mother had died, leaving her an orphan. She was terribly sad, clearly missed her mother, and wary of us, and constantly attempting to nurse off her stall-mates. No matter how much we bottle fed her, she was always hungry since she was used to eating many times a day. 

Only two weeks after we acquired the four bottle calves a late March snow-storm struck, with blizzard-like conditions. With a typical serendipity that wouldn’t be a surprise to the average cattle farmer, this snowstorm was also the event that kicked off the spring calving season on the Flying 45 Ranch. One of our younger herd cows, named Stan, decided that was the perfect time to calve. We had been checking on the cattle several times a day, so were immediately aware that Stan had calved and might need help in the subzero temps. Travis and I found the calf and put it on a calf sled pulled behind the tractor, which Stan-cow followed to the barn.

No sooner had Stan cow entered the barn than our stress was almost immediately doubled, rather than relieved. An incredible ruckus had started and it sounded as if the barn was going to be torn down. Travis and I looked around in amazement to determine the cause of the intolerable racket, and found  bright eyed and bushy-tailed little Dolly, bawling at the top of her lungs and repeatedly attempting to climb out of the stall. She thought Stan was her missing mother! 

After being assured that Dolly couldn’t hurt herself, we ignored the din, and immediately went to work trying to help the newborn calf. Despite finding Stan-cow’s calf quickly, and trying everything we knew throughout a long, sad night, it died early the next morning. Being a firm believer that all things happen for a reason, I was positive this chain of events was NOT a coincidence. But it would be no easy task getting Stan to accept Dolly as her own, her instincts very strongly told her to save her colostrum and milk for her own calf, and we ran the risk of her injuring or even killing Dolly if we weren’t careful. 

Travis and I had both heard of old cowboys skinning a dead calf and tieing the fresh skin to an orphan calf to convince the mother cow to take it as her own. We called several experienced cattlemen, including my father, for advice, but none could confirm that it actually worked. We had to make a quick decision, since Stan’s calf had just died that morning, it was now or never. It was a job no-one wanted, and one that we didn’t relish, but after a long discussion we opted to try it. We quickly and carefully skinned the calf as Stan was pacing her pen looking for it.

It took both of us to catch and hold Dolly to tie the skin over her back and to each of her legs. When the job was finished Travis and I took a deep breath and looked at each other. We both knew what the other was thinking, and that exchanged look held more than hope. It was a shared prayer many a farmer has prayed, that to have something good come of tragedy and heart-break.

We took a deep breath, mentally prepared ourselves to intervene on Dolly’s behalf if Stan decided to attack her, and opened the gate. We shooed Dolly into Stan’s pen, and it was clear that Dolly now knew that Stan-cow was not, in fact, her missing mother. Dolly was noticeably cautious about Stan and seemed intimidated when Stan immediately approached her, and kept snuffling and licking Dolly all over. Stan was clearly confused, after giving Dolly this treatment, she would then run frantically around the pen mooing. This went on for almost half an hour before Stan gradually seemed to become convinced that Dolly was her calf.

Within an hour, Dolly was nursing, Stan was no longer searching for her calf, and the two were inseparable. It was, by far, one of the most amazing things I have witnessed. As I watched Dolly quietly nursing on Stan while she licked her contentedly, the worry, stress and heartache of the past twenty-four hours seemed to vanish. On the ranch, animals die. You try to save them and you sometimes can’t, and you grieve for the ones you’ve lost. But always there are others who depend on you, and need you to be strong, and wise, and careful. And sometimes, very rarely, when the stars align and the best of intentions and the worst of situations come together not in tragedy, but in harmony, you see that you can make a difference in a life, you can sometimes put right what once was wrong. And when that happens? This big, tragic world makes just a little more sense, and you know why you were put here on this earth. Those moments are what I live for. They are rare, and fleeting, and ever-so-precious. 

Happiness and Hoofbeats,

The Gate Girl

Dolly in November 2013, in the pasture, still not far from her adoptive mother, Stan, in the background.
Dolly in November 2013, in the pasture, still not far from her adoptive mother, Stan, in the background.

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