Ranch Diaries: An orphaned calf gets rescued

Surrogate parenting after a cow dies at the Triangle P in New Mexico.

  • May Day, a calf whose mother cow died.

  • The author, left, and her sister, feed May Day.

  • Unlike these pairs, May Day will have a unique family -- most likely paired with another mother cow, since hers has died.

  • May Day sits under her favorite juniper tree.

  • May Day gets a bouncy rescue from the author in the Suzuki.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

May Day butts her head against the bottle and takes the last pull, her tail swinging. Her dark brown coat shines in the late afternoon light as she stomps impatiently.  It’s taken her a few days, but now she looks forward to Sam and me feeding her. We’re the only mothers this young calf has.

I always know when Sam’s home from checking the cows by hearing the jingle bobs on his spurs as he walks up to the camper.  But a week ago I heard hoof beats outside, so I stepped out on the porch. If Sam shows up at the front door on a sweaty horse, it’s usually not a good sign.

He’d tied an orphan calf down a few miles away. Could I take the Suzuki and pick it up? I was sorry to hear about the unexpected death of the cow, and concerned for the day-old calf. I covered the dinner I’d been making with foil and slipped on shoes and sunglasses. The Suzuki is exactly what you’d expect a nine hundred dollar get-around vehicle to be: rough, and loud but reliable. It’s a great car for us because we’d rather put Triangle P money into cattle than vehicles, and it meets our needs just fine. I bounced over two miles of rough dirt two-track before I saw a black shape at the roadside. A cluster of cows and calves had approached the little heifer calf, who was hogtied and indignant. As I hefted her eighty-pound body, I wondered if her mother had sustained fatal internal injuries from giving birth to such a large first calf. (Sam and I concluded that's likely what happened, though we can't be sure.) Although we use low-birth weight bulls and monitor the herd, we can’t be everywhere at once. When we experience a loss, we feel it, and not just financially.

It was the first of May, and all day I’d been thinking about my childhood May Day traditions, making colorful paper baskets of home baked goodies to leave on our neighbors’ and grandparents’ doors. She didn’t exactly come in a basket, but the double meaning of “May Day” seemed appropriate for this survivor. It’s always chancy raising a calf like this: milk replacer is never as good as a mother cow’s customized milk. Often orphan calves end up smaller, with compromised immune systems, if they live at all, usually by stealing milk from other cows. They’re known as “dogies,” “leppies” or “pinkoes”– depending on what part of the West you’re in. The term “dogie” comes from the “dough-gut” appearance of their distended bellies, the result of malnutrition.

As soon as I drove into the yard, Sam walked out with a warm bottle, and we settled her into a bed of grass hay in the horse trailer. After a few days, I turned May Day out in the fenced yard around the old house here at our camp. She was ecstatic to play in the sunshine, bucking and running, exploring every corner of the yard before finally settling in the shade of a juniper.

That’s still her favorite spot. Now she follows when I walk off, searching for one last drink of milk. Hopefully, she’ll continue to thrive. When our Jersey milk cow, Sally, calves later this month, we’ll try to graft May Day onto her. She’s raised lots of dogie calves for us, and usually accepts them without too much fuss. While there’s no substitute for one’s real mother, we have to cross our fingers and try.

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