We did everything right. We thought of all the possible outcomes and prepared. We were wrong.
The old adage is that “If you have livestock, eventually you will have dead stock.” This is true. Nothing prepared us for what we encountered this past weekend. We thought we had done everything to prevent this from happening. Life had other plans.
We have a small herd of cattle. Many different breeds, most are considered mutts. Gazelle was a mutt. She was a mix of her mother, an Angus/Simmental cross, and a Gelbvieh bull. Gazelle was NOT a small stature heifer. She was two years old and healthy and big, not quite as big as her mother, but close. Last summer, we borrowed a friend’s Simmental bull that was known to throw small babies. Perfect! We will be able to use him with our first time heifers, Gazelle and Ebony (Dexter/Lowline cross). Ox was a BIG fellow. He was the most timid, sweet bull I had ever met, but his size was off-putting. I was terrified of him for about a week after he got here. Wow, he was huge. I said he resembled a buffalo rather than a Simmental. As I said, he was sweet and slow and just lumbered along. I never saw him do his job, but he got it done. Ox stayed with us over the winter and into late spring when we took him back to his farm. He was promptly load from our trailer to another and went off to a new life. He had done his duty for both farms. When Miss Mavis calved we knew we had made the right choice. The calf was a healthy heifer, beautiful and well put together, but not heavy. Then Miss Millie, Gazelle’s mother, calved and gave us a handsome little bull that looked a lot like Ox. Their names are Anika (Ana) and Ox. The calves were healthy, hearty and a great size (not too big, not terribly small). We had high hopes for Gazelle to have her first calf this summer. Because we pasture bred, we were not positive when Gazelle would calve. We have all our calves on pasture and are generally close by but let the mother’s and the herdmates take their positions and handle things themselves. It is remarkable to me when the community of animals help one another. I have watched sows assist each other in labor, calling the newborns to them while the farrowing sow is in the trance, so the new piglets do not upset her. I have watched a first time gilt giving birth and being agitated but calm down when her sister laid her head on her hind leg just to give her reassurance. I have watched my horses stand guard over a new foal regardless of if they were the dam. The cows are no different. There is always one babysitting the little ones while they are in pasture. The herd is always together. Not this time.
Gazelle’s birthing story is a bit different than any of the others we have had here on the Triangle K. The herd was at the barn, Gazelle was not. We expected her to be just down the hill not far from the herd, but she wasn’t. This is never a good thing. Gazelle began her life with the moniker of Butter. Well, she really began with the name of Dumbo. She had the biggest ears of any calf I have ever seen in my life. They reminded us of the Disney character. She quickly grew into those ears and had a beautiful coat that reminded me of freshly churned butter. So, Butter is what I called her. Until… she jumped fences. We aren’t talking low fences; we are talking 5 foot tall fences. I think she enjoyed jumping. Her older brother enjoyed jumping so much that he went to freezer camp when he was just 9 months old because I couldn’t keep him in a pasture. Nothing wrong with the pasture, plenty of field to graze, but he always wanted to see what was on the other side. It was beginning to seem like Butter was full of the same spit and vinegar as her brother. Gazelle was born as she leaped the field fence to visit our neighbors and then leapt back in like it was nothing. As her pregnancy progressed, she stopped jumping so much, but the fear was always with us.
When she was not at the barn, we knew something was amiss. She had not jumped a fence in a very long time, we didn’t think that was the problem, but we had to find her to be sure. We paned out looking in all the places that the herd may go to bed down. Remember, the herd is back at the barn, no one followed us, no one was bawling. This was odd behavior. Blond Wonder went to look in the swamp. Handsome Husband and I continued into the woods. I veered off to the north, Husband went south. He called out a short time later meaning he had found her. Off I went to them.
We were fully expecting either that she had jumped the fence again or that she was in labor. We found her in labor. Husband mentioned that something didn’t seem right. Nothing that we could see at that moment, just a feeling. I am the one she was most comfortable with, so I skirted around her, talking calmly and softly to her the whole time. The calf was already dead. His nose and front hooves were out, but there was no life there. The tongue lolled out. He was gone. I told Gazelle how sorry I was and that we would help her. By the condition of the calf, she had been in labor for many hours. The flies were already swarming. The first item is to get the calf out, then we can help the mama. Husband pulled and nothing. I pulled along with her contractions. The baby was not moving. We sent Blond Wonder up to the house for the side-by-side and chains to help pull the calf. He no sooner than made it back in record time than Rocky saw that we needed more than what was here. Time was moving faster and faster. The boys went to the house for provisions and I stayed with Gazelle. She moved from her position to another place further into the woods. I followed and tried to help. It seemed like an eternity that the men were gone. I remembered that I had left some wire on the corner post and went to get it. If I could wrap the wire around the calf’s hooves and assist him out it would help Gazelle. I got the wire onto the hooves and pulled when she was pushing. I was able to get the calf progressed enough that an ear was exposed. Rocky and Blond Wonder were back with water for us and her, softer rope to pull the calf and fly spray. We were in the woods, if you are familiar with woodlands at this time of year, they are teaming with mosquitoes and flies. Fortunately, the mosquitoes were not daring to come near, but the enormous black horse flies were having a field day.
We spent hours trying to pull this calf. We worked with Gazelle’s contractions, I begged her not to give up when she was failing and exhausted. We had called our vet. Only one vet on call and could not get to us until after closing at 3. I called our cattle friends; they were at a funeral and in no shape to come assist. We called Brother John and no answer. We were on our own. We managed to get the head and shoulders out. We were home free! Not the case. The calf was HUGE. When his hips came into the birth canal then lodged against her hip bones and could not pass. Rocky was finally able to get ahold of Brother John. Who confirmed that he was lodged. They worked together, both strong men, to get the calf out, to twist him, to turn him to attempt to move past that point. Brother mentioned a calf Jack. I called the vet and sent them after it. All the while I stayed with Gazelle and gave her drinks and cooled her. By this time, when we were near her front end, she wanted to bite us. She attempted to knock me over several times, but I stood my ground and she swung her head and then just laid it on my leg for comfort. She was in pain and exhausted. The men made it back and we attempted the last resort of the calf jack. The calf was just not moving. We noticed that she was unable to use her hind limbs any longer and the bloat she had been experiencing from the hours of being on the ground and unable to pass fecal matter were past the critical stage. After nearly 8 hours of trying to save the heifer, we made the decision to put her down. We had exhausted all avenues to save her except to cut the calf in half and attempt to push it back into her and turn it. This would have caused so much bacteria to infiltrate her abdomen that the ensuing infection would have most likely killed her. IF the vet had been able to get there when we found her, we may have been able to save her. IF we had a more experienced cow hand there earlier, we may have been able to prevent the lodging of the calf’s hips within her own. IF!
We were devastated to put her down, she had been with us her whole life. She was one of my girls, my lovelies. I often sit out with the herd and pet them and just be with them while they are chewing cud. They are our family. We failed Gazelle, not because we did not try to be the best cattlemen we could. We chose a bull that consistently threw smaller calves. Half of the genetics were from her as well and they dominated the smaller size. We did not fail her because we were not vigilant. She showed no signs of imminent birth, no discharge, no dripping teats, none of the signs that the others gave us. We failed her because it was a perfect storm of every possible bad thing that could happen. Gazelle will forever be with us. We have learned so much from her, we will not fail in the same ways again.
December 1, 2020
It is more than a year later, and I finally will share Gazelle’s story. We lament her death every time we think of her. We could have done more; we say to ourselves. We should have done more; we think. We are much more vigilant of the behaviors of the herd. We watch and listen and if one is missing and no one is bawling, we go after the missing animal. We will not make the same mistakes. We know now that if there is an issue with calving, before we do anything else, we will go get the calf jack. We plan for another perfect storm.
If this year has taught us anything at all, it is this; no matter how bad it is, it can always get worse. I share this account of Gazelle’s last day because I want others to know that even when you do everything right, you can still fail. It is a part of being a farmer. You can raise your animals and then an illness can come through and wipe them all out. You can prepare for a first calf and lose both cow and calf. You can plant a field and have the crop fail whether due to weather or disease. Whatever the issue, we can overcome. It can always get worse, yes, but the lessons we learn and knowing we will come out the other side are worth it. I am thankful for Gazelle’s life. This year we had 4 perfect calves, 2 heifers and 2 bulls (now steers).