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Irons in the fire: Trying is never a waste

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Published on 01 November 2021

“Are you sure she’s ok? Her breathing sure doesn’t sound right.”

It was my wife’s concerned query as she stood next to me holding one hind leg of the 200-pound calf as I held the other leg. The little heifer calf was on her back while Trevor, our long-suffering DVM, worked on stitching up the hole in her belly as he repaired what we assumed to be a minor hernia.

I, in all my wisdom, impatiently assured my wife the calf would be fine. The raspy breathing was just a result of the anesthesia and the temporarily awkward position of the supine bovine. My wife, not wanting to upset the apple cart, begrudgingly and briefly accepted my expert medical assessment as Trevor and I casually discussed some trivially important matter of the day.

After another minute, my wife again interrupted the conversation. “Hey,” she pronounced, “I think your patient has expired on the operating table.”

Now, I’m not a veterinarian, but I happened to be standing next to one. Deferring to his expertise, I took him for his word when he, in what I can only assume was technical medical jargon, dumbed down to mimic ranch profanity for my benefit, declared the little heifer calf to be dead. He was as shocked as I was and answered in the negative when I asked him if he could fix dead. The situation was a blindside kidney punch to an otherwise pleasant summer day. It was something we’d get over, as we always do when minor wrecks and quasi-tragedies slap us with the unpleasant, though not unexpected, realities of ranch life.

I hate it when a critter dies. I mean I really, really hate it. There’s just no fixing it. But I expect it and accept it. I’ll have my momentary, mostly internal meltdown, and then I move on. That’s really about all you can do. This loss, though, had a couple of extra-sharp edges to it.

To understand, I have to rewind to a couple months prior to the little heifer’s death. It was smack dab in the middle of calving. We were getting six to a dozen calves a day, and things were sailing along without any major catastrophes. I was pretty much keeping up with the tagging, but after a couple days of trying, I couldn’t figure out which cow was the mother to an untagged red heifer calf. The calf was in pretty good shape, but judging from the recycled hay on her head, I determined she was stealing milk. Mama was apparently not taking care of her baby. On the third day, I figured out the mystery when I found an old red cow with her back in a hole, half a mile from the feeding ground. The poor old girl, who survived for another week, had calved but, with her back downhill, had been unable to get up to care for her calf. Her scrappy little offspring had made her way to the main cow herd and figured out how to survive.

We had a cantankerous heifer whose attitude and lack of any maternal instincts whatsoever had resulted in the loss of her own calf. I didn’t really want another bottle calf, so I figured I’d bring the Jezebel in and try to graft the little red survivor onto her. The reluctant mother never really took to the calf, kicking the baby away any time she tried to suck. But the calf was tenacious enough to somehow make the match work – and though the cow never lost the attitude, the calf never gave up. Eventually I turned the pair out, having enough faith in the calf’s resilience to count on not only its survival but its ability to thrive.

A week or so before turnout, as I was riding through the cows, I happened to notice a slight swelling near the navel area of my spunky little friend. My expert diagnostic capabilities led me to believe she had a hernia. I figured it was pretty minor, but I didn’t want to turn the calf out on the mountain in that condition just in case it got worse. And … that brings us to the fateful day of the poor calf’s ultimate demise.

On that summer day, as I traversed through the condensed and expedited grieving process painfully familiar to anyone who suffers through the blessing of raising livestock, I had the fleeting thought that it had all been a terrible waste. I, of course, briskly swept the thought from the stage of my mind, choosing instead to search for something less dreary and macabre. And I found something.

Although the entire process was worse than a complete loss – I’d lost a cow, a calf and any potential for income, with no chance to recoup even a minute of the hours and days I’d spent on the whole enterprise – I doubt there is anything that could convince me to take any course of action other than the one I did.

I’m thankful my creator somehow instilled that in me, indeed, in all of us – that innate will and fire to do the right thing, the hard thing, no matter the outcome; with a belief that the outcome, no matter how dark the probabilities, is never predetermined.

—Happy Thanksgiving

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

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