This morning, I saddled a dependable horse and headed for morning rounds at the calving meadow. I want to finish checking on the cows a little early so I can drive up the road to my neighbor’s house for the Shell Ladies’ Coffee. (Shell itself may boast a population of only 50, but we’ve had gatherings with 20 women in attendance.)
On such a beautiful morning, its hard to hurry. And anyway, hurrying is the thing you just can’t do, if you’re going to do this job right. The morning and evening routine of observation is really just a conversation with cows. I’ve known some of them for years, same as with my neighbors. Some are agreeable and kind, and some have suffered more than others.
Every day I hope for one of those perfect mornings: No problems. Some ranchers believe in letting only the strong survive, but at our place a live calf is always worth more than a dead one. Anyway, I work cheap. Today, though, if things take too long I won’t make it to the coffee, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Over at the fence corner a lone cow is just cleaning up her brand-new baby. A big golden eagle sits high in a dead tree above her, fluffing his feathers in the sun and waiting for the moment he can hop down for the afterbirth. When he sees me, he stretches his wings wide, wide, but he doesn’t fly away.
In a patch of willows is another steaming wet calf, not up yet, mother cow licking him and crooning to him, “Come to life, come to life, oh, such a beautiful baby.” Aha, I think. I saw this cow last night, on the prowl, looking for the private room. Looks like she found just the right spot, and everything’s fine.
Cow talk is easy to understand, even for people. An old grouchy cow bellows and shakes her head, warning me to stay away from her family. A different cow has seen me and decided just to head away. She moos to her calf: “Come on now. Stay close to me. No fooling around. I mean it.” He’s not sure how to use his new legs, but he obeys.
Once, I stole a calf from a cow that was old and thin, her milk useless. She loved her baby, but she was starving him to death, and I took him to the corral and grafted him onto a heifer whose calf had died. The old cow stood for days where she’d last seen her calf and bawled the pain of every heartbroken mother of every species. I felt guilty and ashamed each time I rode by … even knowing “what was best.”
Yesterday, I found a dead calf. The cow was there, still licking the little body, still trying to coax it to life. I hate this every time -- death and pain and sorrow -- even knowing, as I do, that death is part of this business, and part of life. Confused and worried, the cow snorted and shook her head at me. I didn’t know what had gone wrong, but I knew we had an extra calf at the barn, a twin, which is against the odds in cattle. With my rope, I dragged the dead calf behind my horse and the cow followed, anxious beyond fear. ”He’s alive!” she bawled. “He’s moving!” With skill, experience and also some drugs, we swapped a live calf for the dead one -- a happy ending.
Today, an old prancer who calved a few days ago back in the draw brings her baby out for the first time, showing him off to the rest of the girls. “Lookee here,” she says. ”Don’t you girls wish you had a fine little bull calf like this one?” He travels a few feet behind her, but she doesn’t look back. She walks like a queen, head high, commanding him to follow.
I’ve meandered through the pasture for an hour or so, and it looks like everything is okay for now. I’ll make my rounds again this evening and there’ll be a few more new babies by then. I glance at my watch as I head my horse toward home.
Looks like I can make it to the Coffee where I’ll join my other lady friends and hear their stories -- laughs, sorrows, hopes. Not so different, really, everybody doing the best we can. There’s nothing quite like coffee with the ladies.
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches and writes in Greybull, Wyoming, where calving has just been replaced by branding.