|An unexpected calf on the Dipper Ranch in May|
In May, I found a small black calf on the ranch. How did that happen?
I was coming back from a hike when I heard a horse snorting. That means cowboys. And cowboys on horseback in May means round-up time. Depending on market conditions and on trailer and manpower logistics, the cattle are rounded up in batches. This was batch number 2.
I walked over to the cowboy on horseback and reported there was a lone cow in the holding pen. "She sure is an independent one," I said looking up at him. "She's been sneaking into the upper pasture by herself. When she came down for water yesterday, I switched the gates around and walked her into the lower pasture to join the other cattle. But this morning, she was up there on her own again. Now she's all watered up in the holding pen. You want me to walk her out so you can round her up?"
"Yep," said the man on horseback and he leaned down to hand me a two-point antler. "For your yard," he said simply. I use antlers to protect young native plants that are popping up in my thistle control area. Antlers scattered across the yard probably look strange from saddle-height, but at ground level they keep me from mowing the blue-eyed grass and wild strawberry. I declined to explain my eccentric lawn ornaments and as I walked over to the holding pen, I simply centered the new antler over a native melic grass.
Since I do my cattle herding on foot, I'd spent plenty of time observing the backside of the independent cow the day before when it took me nearly 30 minutes of walking loops to get her moved out of the holding pen. That's when I noticed how bony the top of her hips looked and that her udders were visible between her legs. She had a different brand on her right hip that started with a "Q" in addition to Cowboy V's brand on her left shoulder. "This heifer looks different from the others," I thought. "She must be older or that Q-brand comes with some bony genes."
|Moving 30 head of cattle to the corral at dusk|
I waited an hour and then went down to the corral to discuss other ranch news with the cowboys. I stayed clear until all the cattle were in the corral, gates closed, and horses tied up. Suddenly, Cowboy V shouted from his inspection in the corral, "Hey, this one's had a calf! Where's the calf?" He pointed to the bony-hipped cow with the double brand. The other cowboy and I exchanged startled looks.
I stepped out of the shade and guiltily described my observations of the independent cow.
"Well," said Cowboy V, "for sure she's got a calf tucked into the tall grass up there."
"A calf?" I stammered, "How did that happen?"
Which caused the cowboys to break out laughing.
"Hey, I'm a biologist. I know about that stuff. But I thought these were all heifers and steers."
Cowboy V explained that since he buys some of his young cattle from a stockyard, it's possible that a heifer gets mixed up with bulls somewhere along the way, and even though she may look too young to breed, at some point months later in a far away pasture, she gives birth and proves everyone wrong.
It was the end of roundup day and soon it would be dark. While the cowboys dealt with milling cattle, tired horses, thirsty cow dogs, and a trailer to load, I would check the upper pasture for the calf. Cowboy V warned, "Don't touch that calf and don't go near it or this young cow may never take it back again." If I spotted the calf, I would get out of the pasture immediately and leave Cowboy V a message with the calf's location so he could try to get the pair back together the next day.
I didn't have much time to search. The sun edged towards Mindego Hill and the quail covey was making its last call. I zigzagged towards the leaning telephone pole where I had seen the
|Blonde on blonde - a coyote blends into the dry summer grass|
Would the calf survive with a family of coyotes nearby? The best thing I could do was get away from the calf since coyotes often follow human scent in anticipation of an incidental meal. I left a message for Cowboy V about the location and assured him that I did not go near the calf.
|Deer also use a hiding strategy to protect their newborns. A young fawn is spotted for camouflage and it has not developed an odor yet, so it is hard for predators to detect it. Except for short nursing periods, the doe will stay away from the fawn for the first few days so as to not attract predators until the fawn is better able to run. I you find a fawn tucked in the grass alone, it is best to just leave it. Otherwise, your presence could actually attract predators.|
In a few hours, Cowboy V called me at my office. When he loaded the next batch of cattle that morning, he put the bony cow into the trailer last. Then they drove the trailer up to the next gate and let the bony cow out. She trotted straight up to the telephone pole so we both assumed she had reunited with the calf.
|A new mother cow trying to hide in the woods|
When I got home that evening, the cow was in the holding pen by the trough but there was no sign of the calf. The Roper told me that calves can readily follow the herd when they are about 2 weeks old, so range cows usually hide their calves until then. We had no idea when the calf was born, but judging by the cow's behavior, it was perhaps a few days old. As I walked back up to the leaning telephone pole, I saw a brown shadow slipping through the grass - a sharp-eared coyote. Still no sign of the calf. Either it was well hidden or it was gone. We had started to refer to the missing calf as either Bonus or Bait.
|Watering up - the cow often cleans the calf while it nurses.|
|While the adult cattle were busy grazing, the calf was often tearing around the pasture and inspecting strange objects out of curiosity.|
|Calf checks out human|
|When a heifer is not a heifer|