Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Is a Heifer Not a Heifer?

An unexpected calf on the Dipper Ranch in May 
Heifers are female cows who have never bred. Steers are male cattle who have been fixed so they cannot breed. The grazing operation at the Dipper Ranch is a seasonal lease and this year as in previous years, Cowboy V reported that he was bringing in 80 heifers and steers from December to June.

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 
As I stepped through the upper gate of the holding pen for the second day in a row, the bony-hipped heifer knew the drill and headed straight for the lower gate. The horse stamped as soon as the cow walked into the lower pasture, and soon cowboy and horse were pushing the lone cow down to the herd which was kicking up dust on its last pass across the Dipper Ranch.

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 heifer cow graze most of the morning. Sure enough, in the long shadow of the pole was a darker bulge partially hidden by tall dry grass. Through the binoculars, the black smudge turned into a calf resting with its legs tucked under its body, head erect and ears flicking off flies. I had found the calf, but would it survive the night alone?

Blonde on blonde - a coyote blends into the dry summer grass 
Recently, I had stumbled onto a coyote family in the upper pastures. Walking in the cool evening air, I crested a rise and surprised a rambling coyote on the upper road. It veered off the road, trotted up the grassy hill and then sat down and faced west. The coyote was an adult but on the small side and had such a light coat, it was nearly invisible in the dry grass. I decided to likewise sit down on my side of the hill and watch the sunset. After about five minutes, which is a long time for a coyote to sit still, a coyote pup came out of the brush and wandered down the hill. The adult coyote watched it for a few seconds and then slipped off in another direction as if to avoid contact and responsibilities. The long-legged pup didn't seem to notice either of us and made its sniffing way in my general direction. Finally, when I raised by binoculars, it paused for a look and then turned to run for the line of fir trees. I had seen this type of dusk behavior near a coyote den before - the pups are winding up a day of chasing crickets, and the adults come out and stretch in preparation for a night of hunting.

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.
Early the next morning, I climbed the hill again. What would it look like if the coyotes got the calf? Would there be blood on the grass? Would there even be a carcass, or would they drag the tiny animal into the brush and devour it without a trace? Under the leaning telephone pole I was relieved to find the calf still alive. It was a little damp from the morning dew, but still breathing, alert with bright eyes, and keeping very quiet. I left another message for Cowboy V and headed down the hill to work.

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 
By this time, I was calf-obsessed. Between field checks on the preserves, I swung by the Dipper Ranch to spy on the united pair. I found the cow lurking in the forest on the edge of the upper pasture. She  tried to hide behind an oak tree. I guess she was tired of me rounding her up. I didn't see a calf at her side so I assumed she had moved it to a new hiding place. I left the cow alone, but made sure to open all the gates between the upper pasture and the closest trough so the nursing mom wouldn't have to go under fences anymore to get back and forth from her calf and water.

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. 
For the next few days, I would often see the bony-hipped cow with the steers but still no sign of the calf. "Bait" was seeming more and more likely the fate of the calf. Until one evening when I saw a small black shadow alongside the bony-hipped cow at the trough next to the house. A black shadow that alternated between frolicking and nursing. The calf was still alive.

While the adult cattle were busy grazing, the calf was often tearing around the pasture and inspecting strange objects out of curiosity.
A few days later, I saw Bonus grazing with the herd in another pasture. I decided to get a closer look. As I slowly wound my way down the hill, Bonus got curious and stepped up the hill. It stopped behind a thistle to check me out. I was probably the first and maybe the only human it had ever seen. Meanwhile, none of the adult cattle paid us the least bit of attention and just kept grazing. In the background, I could see a doe carefully lead her fawn into the brush to hide it while she prepared for her evening out to browse. How this black calf managed to survive on the ranch continued to amaze me. Bored with me, Bonus made a circuit to every member in the small herd, getting a lick or nudge even from the steers.

Calf checks out human 
The next week, Bonus was rounded up with the last batch of cattle and has now gone west to graze on the greener pastures of the moist coast. We still see fawns in the evening although there are fewer of them so it seems some have gone to feed the coyote family. As summer rolls on and I travel the country roads of the beautiful San Mateo coast or elsewhere in rural California, I often pull over to the side for a few minutes to watch the calves on other ranches. They're cute for such tough little survivors.

When a heifer is not a heifer 


  1. Great story.
    You should come to La Honda Lit Night and share it.

  2. Hi, Cindy. I just discovered your site as I was reading the comments on Photo Naturalist's blog. I enjoyed reading your post as a ate my lunch today. Thank you for sharing life on a ranch! Sheila

  3. Joe: thanks for the encouragement. My canyon neighbors have been bugging me to come to the LH Lit Night but I was wondering if it is still going on with Cuesta LH closing???

    Sheila: glad to meet you through Photo Naturalist. He has some good technical (and ethical!) tips on outdoor photography.


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